What Rhody’s Reading

These will not be typical book reviews, outlining plots and critiquing writers. I merely want to share my thoughts as I continue to trot through the wonderful world of novels. Every week you’ll find postings here on the latest books I’ve read.

Alphabetical (by author) List of Books with Reviews in the same order, by author’s last name, below:

  • Isabel Allende:  The Japanese Lover
  • Steve Almond: Candyfreak
  • T.C. Boyle:  The Terranauts
  • Val Brelinski:  The Girl Who Slept with God
  • Philip K. Dick:  Flow My Tears The Policeman Said
  • Louise Erdrich:  Shadow Tag
  • Louise Erdrich:  The Plague of Doves
  • Jeffrey Eugenides:  The Marriage Plot
  • Charles Frazier:  Nightwoods
  • Alan Furst:  Dark Star
  • Christina Garcia: The Lady Matador’s Hotel
  • Justin Go:  The Steady Running of the Hour
  • David Guterson:  Our Lady of the Forest
  • Jim Harrison:  The Big Seven
  • Adam Haslett:       Imagine Me Gone
  • Mark Helprin:  A Soldier of the Great War
  • Richard Hoyt:  Cool Runnings
  • Joe Jackson:  Black Elk
  • Rula Jebreal:  Miral
  • Doris Lessing:  The Good Terrorist
  • Paulo Lins:  City of God
  • Mario Vargas Llosa:  The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto
  • Peter Mayle:  A Good Year
  • Pauline Melville:  Eating Air
  • Pauline Melville:  The Ventriloquist’s Tale
  • Derek B. Miller:  Norwegian by Night
  • Anchee Min:  Katherine
  • R.K. Narayan: The Vendor of Sweets
  • Julie Otsuka:  Buddha in the Attic
  • Richard Powers:  Plowing the Dark
  • Annie Proulx:  Barkskins
  • André Schwarz-Bart:  The Last of the Just
  • B.A. Shapiro:  The Muralist
  • Dani Shapiro:  Black & White
  • Jane Smiley:  Barn Blind
  • James Alexander & Dark Rain Thom: Warrior Woman
  • Leon Uris:  Redepmtion
  • Rebecca Walker: Adé
  • Rebecca West:  The Birds Fall Down

>> My Impressions of each of these books begins here — alphabetically by author  >>

  • A passionate fan of Isabel Allende since I first read one of her works more than two decades ago, I relished The Japanese Lover (2015) and believe it to be her best ever. It is now on my top ten list of all time favorite novels. Allende’s style is smooth and seductive, nothing forced, always taking the reader down alluring paths as she weaves in the heartrending, often transcendent stories, of her characters. Alma Belasco lived most of her life in a San Francisco Sea Cliffs mansion, with expansive views of the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge and servants attending to the nine-bedroom home and gardeners working horticulture magic on the gardens surrounding it. Her wealthy Jewish family smuggled her out of Poland as the Nazis were seizing it. Though her rich American relatives welcomed her with open arms, she spent months sleeping in the closet of her elaborate bedroom, crying herself to sleep. Then she met a Japanese boy, the son of their gardener, who would become her lifelong friend and secret lover. Allende’s description of the WWII Japanese internment camps that her friend endures as a boy, re-imagines the shame Americans should feel while letting the civilized grace of the Japanese-Americans shine through, making it a bitter-sweet part of Alma’s tale. Her life’s story is one remembered from the quiet retirement home she retreats to, told to her adoring Moldovan immigrant attendant named Irina and to a mysterious friend from her past named Lenny who had come to the home to die. Allende tells Irina’s story as counterpoint to Alma’s and Lenny’s as parallel. Her epic love story is adorned throughout with the poems, simple, sweet, beautiful letters from Alma’s lifelong love, Ishimei. Few but Isabel Allende have ever achieved such richness in their prose, such breadth of history and human travails in their story telling.

 

  • Candyfreak (2004) by Steve Almond is subtitled ‘A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America.’ Almond’s comic, self-effacing touch through his opening candy mania confessions drew me into the book but his depth of knowledge – candy companies, their brands, the unique ways they’re made and the history of chocolate and confections – had me engrossed before chapter four. By the end I felt I was seeing the history of American business, from individual craftsmen and small family business to corporate take-over, through the eyes of a passionate, deeply intelligent – and, yes, very entertaining – candy lover.

 

  • The Terranauts (2016) by T.C. Boyle. Eight young scientists, four female, four male, commit themselves to a two year sequester inside a self-sustaining biosphere. What could go wrong? Boyle tells his story through the journals of three of the scientists – two of them on the inside, Dawn and Ramsay, and one, Linda, who didn’t make the cut to be on the inside so acts as support crew on the outside, bitter and driven. Setting the story in the early 1990s Boyle avoids a lot of questions about the science of the biosphere systems (which doesn’t seem all that well thought out from our point-of-view twenty-five years later) and focuses instead on the raw emotions evoked by the pressure of being locked inside and by the malfunctions of personality and equipment. Top among their vulnerabilities is sexual behavior in a closed system, pairings and re-pairings resulting in conflict and jealousy. In the end it is a very intimate tale.

 

  • The Girl Who Slept with God, the debut novel of Val Brelinski, who now teaches at Stanford’s Creative Writing Program (Continuing Education), stems from the author’s own childhood background in rural Idaho. Two sisters raised by committed Evangelical Christian parents respond in vastly different ways to their parents’ strict rules. The oldest, seventeen, internalizes her beliefs to such a degree that she becomes a zealous missionary. Returning home pregnant, Grace contends that it was an ‘angel of God’ not a man who impregnated her. Her younger sister, Jory, celebrates her fourteenth birthday isolated with her pregnant sister in a rural house away from the prying eyes of their small town neighbors. She rebels but maintains a strong allegiance to her older sister and to her father. It’s compelling reading and ripe with fresh visions of adolescent discovery and of Idaho star-filled nights, the backdrop to their sweeping questions about life, morality and God. The story is told entirely from the POV of Jory.

 

  • No one is a better example of how inadequate the ‘Sci-Fi’ genre is to encompass many of the authors classified within it. Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears The Policeman Said (1974) tells of a celebrity in the near future (Dick’s ‘near future’ was late 20th Century, the epilogue takes us to 2017) who wakes up to find that no one knows him, not even his mistress. The police who run the authoritarian government have no records that he ever existed. His lack of identity in a world where all citizens are monitored and all the facts of their lives are compiled in a massive central databank brings him to the attention of the all-powerful police general. Smart and sensitive, the general is also an enigma. The action, suspense and very human, odd, flawed, nuanced characters move the story along at a rapid clip. So much so that I found myself having to slow down or even backtrack to fully grasp Dick’s gems of insight and philosophy. Example (p. 119), after exhausting themselves in bed his lover explains to the ex-celeb, “You can never accomplish what your survival instinct sets out to do, so ultimately your striving ends in failure and you succumb to death, and that ends it. But if you love you can fade out and watch with happiness, and with cool, mellow, alpha contentment, the highest form of contentment, the living on of one of those you love.”  In the end, after taking some questionable drugs, known later to alter a person’s grasp of time and space, the celebrity’s identity and fame restored, we’re left wondering what’s real, his identity, or his non-identity. Oddly, it’s the police general’s tears that provide an answer. The entire, mind-bending story is a tribute to an often-quoted explanation. “I want to write about people I love, and put them into a fictional world spun out of my own mind, not the world we actually have, because the world we actually have does not meet my standards,” Dick wrote. “In my writing I even question the universe; I wonder out loud if it is real, and I wonder out loud if all of us are real.”

 

  • Louise Erdrich drilled down to the core of her sensual, sensational, tragedy-touched writer-self when she wrote her 2010 novel, Shadow Tag. Irene America keeps two diaries. She keeps the red one in her home office hidden in a place where she knows her husband, Gil, will find it and read such passages as ‘None of the children have one molecule in common with Gil.’ Learning that the foundation of Gils success as an artist is a series of paintings called ‘America’ featuring his beautiful wife in a variety of poses, many nudes include some that female critics claim were demeaning to the model, we keep expecting Irene to reveal the truth to us in her second diary. She writes in her blue diary regularly while ensconced in a small cubicle in a bank, next to the safe-deposit box where she keeps it. What adds a very tender touch to the narrative is that we also watch the parents’ intense relationship moving closer day-by-day to the breaking point through the eyes of their four children. We fall in love with all four of them, wanting the story to turn out well for them. I will let you discover their plight as you read the book. I’ll let you wait as well for what is revealed, or not, in the blue diary.

 

  • Three hundred eleven pages but just one inch thick, Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves (2008) bursts its covers with its intricately woven storyline, its sweeping timeline, life to life from the founding of tiny Pluto, North Dakota to its present day demise, replete with rich depictions of remarkable, everyday people. Erdrich wastes not a single word explaining why and how these lives flow together, she let’s us absorb their meaning as though we are eavesdropping on one intimate conversation after another. The banker explains how the idea of having his own wife kidnapped occurred to him quite naturally while his lover’s brother held him a gunpoint. After a brutal winter spent trying to claim the land that would become Pluto, the young survivor returns to Minnesota, buys a suit and decides to become a lawyer, naturally. The young mother turned snake handler seduces her crazed Pentecostal husband, fucks him to exhaustion, plunges a needle full of snake venom into his heart then, as her planned reward, takes her children into town for a big breakfast. The sweet violin playing of mixed Chippewa, Cree and French men enrapture and sustain one generation to the next. Secret lovers, acid trips turned into insanity and redemption, old men whetting the imagination of children with half-told, half-real stories of murders and hangings, until on page three hundred and eleven it all settles into a perfectly aligned patchwork of the lives that made up a town named Pluto. An elderly doctor discovers the identity of the man who murdered her family when she was a baby and celebrates the day she saved his life, bemoaning only the loss of her little hometown: “The wind will blow. The devils rise. All who celebrate shall be ghosts. And there will be nothing but eternal dancing, dust on dust, everywhere you look.” Adding, “Oh my, too apocalyptic . . .”

 

  • The Marriage Plot (2011) by Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Eugenides. The book jacket blurb asks, “Are the great love stories of the 19th Century dead? Or can there be a new story, written for today and alive to the realities of feminism, sexual freedom, prenups, and divorce?” The Marriage Plot is both more – it is a vital exploration of the ravages of mental illness – and less – Madeleine, a college student in the early 1980s, is as spoiled and self-absorbed as she is in love. Eugenides’ writing and wit make it worth reading.

 

  • Nightwoods is a work of art. That what Charles Frazier does. He did so with Cold Mountain and again with Thirteen Moons. If I had known nothing of his work I would have become a Frazier fan by the middle of Chapter One: “The day the children came was high summer, the sky thick with humidity and the surface of the lake flat and iron blue. On the far side mountains layered above the town, hazing upward in the shades of olive until they became lost in the pale gray sky.” Without forced words or beckoning enticements Frazier lets readers fall in love with Luce. Living alone on the edge of the deep Appalachian woods, letting nature and time heal the woods of family abandonment and an unprosecuted rape, Luce suddenly inherits the young children of her murdered sister. As she relearns the art of love and care a romantic wander named Stubblefield, the new owner of her rural lodge, stumbles into her life with such affability that we hold out hope for their happiness even as the sister’s murderer begins to stalk them. Nightwoods is the rare combination of beautiful literature created around a taut, suspense-filled storyline.

 

  • Dark Star (1991) by Alan Furst. The New York Times got it right, Dark Star is a “rich, deeply moving novel of suspense that is equal parts espionage thriller, European history and love story.” And it is much more. In 1938 a Russian journalist writing for the Communist Party’s new formed Pravda is turned into a spy. Fluent in German, French, English and, of course, Russian, he also has the perfect cover to move about Europe and channel Nazi secrets back to his Russian handlers. He is caught in the middle of the German invasion of Poland and caught up with two young German women opposed to Hitler. He writes articles helping Stalin maintain the fiction that he is Hitler’s ally. André Szara is in as deep as any WWII intelligence operative you’ve ever read about and he does not expect to make it out alive. He is also a Jew.

 

  • The Lady Matador’s Hotel (2010) by Cristina Garcia has an alluring book cover – one obviously take from the opening lines of the novel, “The lady matador stands naked before the armoire mirror and unrolls her long pink stockings.” In town (an unnamed Central American capital) for an all-female bullfight competition the lady matador’s story intertwines, chapter by chapter, with the stories of a diverse set of characters staying at the same hotel: a Korean expatriate managing a family garment factory who is intent on suicide, a conference of South American generals, an ex-rebel waitress plotting to kill one of the generals, a Cuban poet who has come with his American wife to adopt a child and a manipulative, ball-busting adoption lawyer. Garcia writes like an intuitive, experienced mixologist. The final cocktail she pours is quite stimulating going down and leaves the reader admiring the panache of its creator.

 

  • Critics describe The Steady Running of the Hour (2014), Justin Go’s debut novel, as a historical tour de force. They’re right. But, what kept me engrossed, making me pace myself so that the 466-page novel lasted two days, was the love story. One of the most touching and one of the saddest love stories I’ve ever read, The Steady Running of the Hour, explores the very meaning of love and its relevance in the pantheon of mankind’s’ beliefs. As a 21st Century young man seeks out the conclusion to his ancestors’ love affair nearly a century earlier, he himself falls in love. Following the research of young Tristan, who is due to inherit millions if he can prove that he descends from the love child of an early 20th Century English couple, we’re plunged into the horror of WWI trench warfare and pulled to the heights of Mt. Everest where his great grandfather died. Go tells two parallel stories, one from the point-of-view of the great climber and WWI vet, Ashley Walsingham and his lover, Imogen Soames-Andersson, and one from the point-of-view of Tristan as he unravels their lives through forgotten love letters and clues scattered across France, Germany, Sweden and Iceland a century earlier. It is a sweeping, wonderfully paced novel richly appointed with life’s everyday details that render a century of human history into delicious bite-sized morsels.

 

  • No one writes like David Guterson. Nor should anyone try. His principal characters in Our Lady of the Forest (2004) reveal themselves in runaway rumination, page-long paragraphs that flow from personal histories to confessions of weakness and doubt about their actions and motives in the present. Ann is a sexually abused sixteen-year-old runaway hiding out in a Washington campground. While picking mushrooms in the forest surrounding a dying lumber town, she falls into a rapturous vision of the Virgin Mary. Her cynical camp neighbor Caroline manages her sudden popularity, siphoning off donation money while acutely slicing and dicing the motives of everyone involved. The town’s new young Catholic priest struggles as much with his unrequited sexual attraction to Ann as with his desire to believe in her apparition. And, Tom a former logger full of hate, feeling deep guilt over the logging accident that paralyzed his son, lives on the edge of it all, disgusted with his hope for a miracle for his son. As we run through the minds and hearts of each character we too start hoping for a miracle.

 

  • Jim Harrison’s The Big Seven – published in 2015, his last (he died a few months ago). The Big Seven is a follow-up book to Harrison’s 2011 novel, The Great Leader. Sunderson, the veteran U.P. cop is now retired and divorced. Fishing the streams and rivers around Marquette mellows him but the rest of the time he drinks too much, has frequent sexual encounters with inappropriately young women, gets embroiled in the lives of a large, habitually violent, drunken family inhabiting three houses and the vast wooded acreage that surround his newly acquired fishing cabin. As with all his novels, Harrison contemplates life through his characters. Sunderson’s reoccurring train of thought is on the Seven Deadly Sins. He explores his level of guilt with each, pride, greed, envy, lechery, gluttony, anger and laziness, finding that he would like to make a case for an eighth, violence. His harshest self-judgment is about the greatest failure in his life, screwing up his marriage to the woman he still dearly loves. I will dearly miss Harrison. He is so painfully, beautifully honest, his prose so smooth and natural – and all his writing seems to relate directly to my own life. His disgust with American’s deplorable history of violence, particularly to its natives, his flawed characters that I can’t help identifying with, his peerless insights into human behavior, and in his last work, his restlessness in retirement, his voice is closest to what I imagine mine to be, if I could develop it.

 

  • Finished reading Imagine Me Gone by Adam Hanslett on a weekend walkabout. Sat outside a small museum. Though the bench was hard, the dappling shade, cool breeze and warm sunshine were a perfect offset to a somewhat grim story. A father suffering years of depression commits suicide leaving three teen children and their mother to grapple with it. Two grow up capable but distrusting of love. One – the ‘sensitive one’ — who foresaw his father’s death suffers endlessly with anxiety & depression, downing a cavalcade of prescribed mood stabilizers. (Oddly, the chapters narrated by him, are the most entertaining.) The family cannot save him and all seem enslaved to a predestined fate, standing over the graves of first the father and then the son. It struck me that I pushed on through the book with the same grim determination of the book’s characters and, like them, knowing it wouldn’t end well.

 

  • The last scene, the mom remembering the evening she met her future husband in England says simply, “It’s a day I recall not in sadness but in wonder at all that followed.” Wonder?

 

  • A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin       Alessandro, an old Italian WWI veteran, spends two days and nights walking with young, naïve Nicolo across the countryside east of Rome. Theirs is an accidental meeting, the old man, having tried to get the train to stop for the young man, is kicked off for his troubles. What unfolds seems predestined. Nicolo is an open book. Allessandro, a retired professor of aesthetics, ready to tell his life’s story.         When Italy joined with the Allied Powers in 1915, Allessandro joined the Navy, dreading the idea of the army’s trench warfare. Apt to his descriptions of war’s irony and chaos, he ends up in the trenches of Northern Italy. And by the middle of this 800-page tome you wonder if you, as a reader, will survive the horror, heartbreak and loss. Allessandro’s story is not an endless diatribe of the mud-filled, rat-infested troughs of dead bodies that are the trenches or the explosions of flesh and blood that happen daily and for months on end. But, it is war, on and on in all its horrible forms. He and his surviving friends are sent to Sicily to track down deserters – more death and deprivation – but are forced to join the deserters. They are caught and put in front of a firing squad. Allessandro gets a sudden reprieve but begs to die with his friends. Then, back in the Alps, he watches from his high altitude observation post as his childhood friend dies on the other side of the valley. He meets the love of his life in a hospital, looses her, spends years finding her, discovering as well the son he didn’t know he had whom he cherishes. He cannot talk his son out of joining the army at the beginning of WWII. War defeats him again and again.

At the end of Allessandro’s life story the young Nicolo says, “Signore, this my seem funny, but I want to do something for all the people in the time of which you spoke. I want to very much, but I can’t, can I.”

To which Allessandro replies, “But you can. It’s simple. You can do something just, and this is to remember them. Remember them. To think of them in their flesh, not as abstractions. To make no generalizations of war or peace that override their souls. To draw no lessons of history on their behalf. Theirs history is over. remember them, just remember them – in their millions – for they were not history, they were only men, women, and children. Recall them, if you can, with affection, and recall them, if you can with love. that is all you need to do in regard to them. and all they ask.”

By immersing us in it, Helprin transcends the horrors of war with the admonition that we must never forget.

 

  • Cool Runnings, a 1984 novel by Richard Hoyt, is the quirkiest spy novel I’ve ever read. Hoyt seems a cross between Ian Fleming and Hunter S. Thompson. The main character, Jim Quint, is himself a quirky spy novelist (his ‘James Bond’ is named Humper Staab) and freelance journalist recruited by the CIA and French Intelligence to help stop the delivery and explosion of a nuclear bomb to New York City. The title comes from my favorite part of the book, Quint in Jamaica recruiting ganja-growing Rastafarians to his cause; I love the Rasta spiced dialogue, ‘irie, cool runnings, mon’. Hoyt dances masterfully on the fine line between too much funk and wit and credible suspense.

 

  • Rula Jebreal is an award-winning journalist, born in Haifa. She is Palestinian and an Israeli citizen. Miral (2010), her first attempt at a novel, often reads like an in-depth news story. The facts, dates, political policies and history of the Palestinian/Israeli struggle are clearly presented as basis for the story of the woman named ‘Miral’ whose story is much like that of the author. Raised in the famous Dar El-Tifel orphanage in Jerusalem with her sister, Rania (Jebreal used her real sister’s name in the story), Miral comes of age in the midst of Palestinian uprisings, witnessing the brute force of the Israeli army used routinely with protesters, befriending an Israeli girl while falling in love with a PLO leader. The outrage you might expect from the author is balanced with the open compassion she shows for the struggle of the Hebrews. The dedication at the front of her book announces her point-of-view: “To Julian. And to all Israelis and Palestinians who still believe peace is possible.” (Julian Schnabel, an American-Jewish artist was her lover during the time she penned Miral.) It is an eye-opening book, both painful and uplifting.

 

  • Doris Lessing was a renowned British Marxist and a Nobel Prize winner author. The Good Terrorist, published in 1985, was one of her later works. The story centers on a not-so-young woman turning a squat in London into a commune with her fellow ‘revolutionaries’. Despite her university degree Alice, mid-thirties, never tried to develop a career but spent years with her gay boyfriend (ideal partner since she hated to be touched, barely tolerant of her friends need to have sex) moving from one abandoned house to another, attending anti-government protests and working from a radical agenda that changed month to month. Alice is smart, hardworking and very good at reading people and taking on a character suited to each situation. She’s the one who always manages, money, food, planning, resources or calming down neighbors and police. Rejected in their attempt to align themselves with the IRA and with Russian Communists, it becomes clear that she and her friends will not be taken seriously until they act like the terrorists they pretend to be. In the end, after setting off a bomb at a London hotel, killing five, wounding 30+, something Alice tried to subvert at the last minute, her friends all going their separate ways, as planned, she feels lost until a new half-baked plan comes to mind. The final paragraph: “Smiling gently, a mug of very strong sweet tea in her hand, looking this morning like a nine-year-old girl who has had, perhaps, a bad dream, the poor baby sat waiting for it to be time to go out and meet the professionals.” Lessing was my age (mid-sixties) when she wrote The Good Terrorist having embraced the folly of her own youthful search for a radical socialist agenda. After winning the Nobel for Literature in 2007 she boasted of the British governments disclosure that she had been watched by British Secret Service for more than twenty years while, on the other hand, leftist newspapers described her as ‘one of Joe Stalin’s useful idiots. (Born in 1919, she died Nov. 17, 2013, two days before my father died.)

 

  • City of God by Paulo Lins (1997-Brazil, 2002-U.S.) is a disturbing book. It offers up gritty, often disgusting tales from Rio de Janeiro’s most notorious slum, Cidade de Deus (the City of God). While teen gangsters celebrate their heists, stalking the streets of their favela, smoking weed, drinking and rocking out to samba, malicious cops plot ambushes. Bullets spray the streets night and day while the survivors dream of the one big hit that will let them escape ‘the life.’ Some of the masses of dispossessed do escape, most by death, many by way of long prison sentences and a few by finding God or chasing dreams that lead to a way out, something the author himself, Paulo Lins, accomplished.

 

  • Mario Vargas Llosa won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature. He has a long a storied history with his native Peru, the setting for his first highly acclaimed book The Green House which I read several years ago, and for The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto. With Don Rigoberto, Vargas Llosa deftly weaves fantasy and reality into a sexually exotic story. The philosophical asides from Don Rigoberto’s assiduously notebook are interspersed between erotic scenes acted out by his wife, Doña Lucrecia, with Rigoberto and without him. Toward the end of the novel it becomes clear that most of the sex scenes are the fantasies detailed in his notebook and it doesn’t matter, which seems to be Vargas Llosa’s point. His fantasies are real expressions of his ardent love and sexual fervor for Lucrecia. His asides are equally enticing and at the heart of the story. “…when someone says in my hearing, ‘The Chinese,’ ‘the blacks,’ ‘the Peruvians,’ ‘the French,’ ‘women,’ or any similar expression proposing to define humans beings by membership in a collective of any kind rather than viewing that as a passing circumstance, I want to pull our a pistol – bang bang – and fire.” Whether by nationality, race, gender or sexual nature labels defy individuality. Rigoberto believes that “To be an individualist is to be an egoist.” He revels in the details of his sex life because his proclivities are the very thing that underscores his individuality. Vargos Llosa is saying that even the larger aspects of his personal history, a Peruvian writer, one of the all-time great Latin American writers, along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and many others, a politically liberal man who became a citizen of Spain after losing the 1990 Peruvian presidential election do not constitute the essence of who he is. Every yearning, thought, act, wish and fantasy are part of the individual, each of us so unique that we should rage against, rebel against every label applied to us.

 

  • Going from Pauline Melville (below) to Peter Mayle is like enjoying a relaxed walk along the beach (or through the vineyards) the day after running a challenging-and-exhilarating marathon through the Redwoods. I’ve read a few Mayle books before, all are centered on pastoral life in the South of France. Like the rest A Good Year is as smooth and easy as a nice glass of Pinto Noir. Not a heavily plotted book, it has just enough suspense to be engaging. It’s a slice-of-life transporting the reader to small vineyards and quaint villages of the quiet French countryside. Much of the narrative is devoted to food and wine; every chapter reveals another mouthwatering description of French culinary traditions. And Mayle’s singular talent for being both light and fulfilling comes through especially well in his wine tasting dialogues which keep a subtle balance between a genuine love for wine and making fun of the ostentatious lip service, ritual and outrageous valuations paid to it by the connoisseurs.

 

  • Pauline Melville‘s The Ventriloquist’s Tale (1997) is centered on the Amerindian McKinnon family in Guyana. The tale’s narrator traces their history from the patriarch Alexander McKinnon’s marriage to two Wapisiana women in the early 20th Century to modern times when Chofy, a 21st Century McKinnon, leaves his wife and son in the Rupununi savannah for work in the city of Georgetown where he falls in love with an English woman. It is a beautifully written narrative that gives the reader a glimpse of the native struggle to hold onto their own magical view of the world in the face of progress, ancients ways vs. modern. McKinnon’s daughter and son are enthralled and entrapped in the legend of incest between the sun and moon, a solar eclipse. Chofy’s generation, educated, living between the old ways and modern demands, continue the struggle of their ancestors facing the added incursion of American oilmen into the Rupununi. In the epilogue the story’s narrator says, “I will say one thing, however. There are three strands of insanity in this world: love, religion and politics, each one so dangerous that it has to be kept in an institution; religion in a church or a temple like a mad dog; love confined to marriage, escaping at society’s peril; politics chained to parliaments because of the genocides and wars that take place when it gets loose.” In found an interview of Pauline Melville who said: “Being a writer is like being a window-cleaner in a house or a castle where the windows are obscured by dirt and grime. Writing is like cleaning the windows so that people can see a view of the world they have never seen before.” With The Ventriloquist’s Tale she achieved a clear, heart-rending view into her native Guyana, an even clearer view into mankind’s soul.

 

  • Eating Air, a 2009 novel by Pauline Melville requires concentration and focus to read. Centered on a group of British anarchists, the story evolves slowly with full back-stories on new characters introduced regularly. Even halfway through her 400-page novel Melville takes the reader on a new character-development tangent with occasional asides by ‘The Narrator.’ Melville’s writing, however, is so rich, so original that she never fails to bring the new elements of the story to life, deftly weaving them, fifty pages later, back into the heart of the story. Like The Ventriloquist’s Tale she draws from her own past as a native of Guyana with present-day roots in England. This tale presents the ghastly history of neighboring Surinam, originally a Dutch colony sharing a border with British Guyana. Decades after their terrorists acts of the Vietnam War era, the cast of revolutionaries wants to topple or at least scar a Dutch & British based world banking institution whose riches originated from their pillaging of Surinam’s natural resources while they slaughtered and/or impoverished the natives. Melville chronicles the lives of committed, or regularly re-committed, revolutionaries from their youth to middle age, presenting the whole of each life not just their political passions. Hector, the idealist who spent seven years in an Italian prison rather giving up his co-conspirators, is committed to his wife and his Down syndrome daughter. Mark, the spoiled son of a famous actress, reckless, never loyal, addicted to the thrill of terrorist acts. Victor, a playwright, anti-establishment in his writing but living off the coattails of wealthy family and friends. A gay cross-dressing pilot, his father one of the wealthy bankers. Hetty, an aloof, manipulative American woman with a beguiling head of blonde tresses who revels in causing pain and disruption wherever and whenever possible. Rising above all these desperate characters are the two who give the entire story wings. Donny, so committed to freedom – “I don’t think about tomorrow. Never did. Never will.” — and so honest that he marries the love his life offering her no illusion about being constantly at her side; their marriage is like an infinitely long bungee cord that brings him back to her side as he bounds with reckless freedom around the globe. The beautiful ballerina, Ella, never questions Donny’s committed to her; knowing he will return to her, she dances, enjoys intimacy with the men and women around her, and leaps into his arms every time he turns up, years or decades between his appearances. Ella and Donny don’t trifle with beliefs, they just live. Donny says, “Having moral principles is against everything I believe in. I am against anybody who is for anything.” When asked what he does believe in, “Nothing. Children. The innocence of children. Humanity. Die for an idea? What a load of fucking shite.” In the end, Eating Air is a massive expression of Pauline Melville’s discontent with the world. The story’s narrator is asked if writing a novel, or art, can make any difference to the world. His (her) answer: “Probably not. But it might upset things a little. It’s one way of having a quarrel with the world. Art is what those of us do who are too frightened to be terrorists.”

 

  • Norwegian by Night, by Derek B. Miller has, as the NY Times attests on the book cover, “the brains of a literary novel and the body of thriller.” A old Jewish American, a U.S. Army sniper in the Korean War, who has just recently moved to Norway to live with his daughter and her husband, suddenly finds himself the sole protector of a six year old Albanian boy after he witnesses the boy’s mother being killed. The narrative encompasses the point-of-view of the tough old Jewish man, the Norwegian female police inspector as well as of members of the refugee gang members who stalk the boy. It’s a page-turner with great character insight.

 

  • Katherine (1995) by Anchee Min. Katherine is the enchanting story of a young Chinese woman rediscovering life after living through the brutal, intentionally dehumanizing experiences Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Named for the American teacher who comes to China to teach English, Katherine is equal parts teacher, student and friend to Zebra who narrates her own bittersweet reawakening. One of the most beautifully written books I’ve read this year.

 

  • R.K. Narayan, the William Faulkner of Indian literature (written in English), wrote The Vendor of Sweets in 1967. It is one of a series of books Narayan wrote that was centered on a fictional, semi-urban town in southern India that he called ‘Malgudi.’ The story follows the life of Malgudi’s candymaker. Jagan, a widower struggling with his relationship with his only son, Mali. Jagan is a devout man who maintains a very strict diet of his own creation. He never indulges in sugar, despite his prosperous candy business. In his respectful dialogues with friends and colleagues he makes frequent reference to being a follower of Gandhi. He meditates daily on the Gita, a Hindu holy book. Despite his generous, thoughtful character he continues to be at a loss to understand his son, especially after Mali returns from America with a college education, a wife and a somewhat misguided scheme for a new modern business, a book-writing machine. Narayan’s light comedic tough and his sensitive narrative offer readers historic views and subtle insights into mid-20th Century Indian people progressing eagerly but gently into the modern age.

 

  • The Buddha in the Attic (2011) – Julie Otsuka. The Japanese women who came to America as ‘mail order’ brides in the early 20th Century had no idea what to expect. None imagined that it would be as harsh as it was or could have realized the tragic upshot of their eventual success. Otsuka speaks for all these women, singling out none:  “Some of us on boat were from Kyoto, and were delicate and fair; and had lived our entire lives in darkened rooms at the back of the house. Some us were from Nara . . .  Some of us were from Tokyo . . .” As unique as they all were, they all suffered, most survived, becoming exemplary Americans . . . until WWII when they and their families were taken away. As she did in her earlier novel, When The Emperor Was Divine (2002), Otsuka writes prose that reads like poetry.

 

  • Plowing the Dark (2000) by Richard Powers. Beautifully written, emotionally and intellectually provocative, Plowing the Dark is not an easy read, nor should it be. Powers’ first transition — from the story of a tech group working on cutting-edge virtual reality systems to the plight of an American teacher captured and imprisoned in war-torn Libya – is so jarring as to make the reader wonder if it’s some sort of mistake. The stories and characters do not intersect. Instead they search the opposite poles of the human experience, offer jolts of insight, such as:
    • Speaking of the artist recruited by her tech friend to help build their virtual reality: “The Adie that Spiegel had loved, the poised, potent undergrad who’d believed in the pencil’s ability to redraw the worked, was long dead the night he’d called to recruit her, a causality of adulthood.”
    • “Maybe this is just perversity. But something about complete consensus would just . . . sadden me. Think of art, all the shockers and rule breakers . . . . All the good ones were either iconoclasts or revolutionaries. We need something to take up arms against. I’m not sure I want to live in a time when all battles have already been fought and won.”
    • “Evolution’s most productive trick was to right things so that the idea of need grew vastly more insatiable than the needs it represented. Feeling had nowhere near ample room in which to play itself out.”
    • “Progress is destruction with a compass”
    • The imprisoned man reads from the Qur’an, the only book he’s allowed in solitary confinement: “Were the sea ink for the words of God, the sea would fail before the words did.” And: “Did you think to enter paradise without suffering the violence of those who have come before you?”

 

  • In Barkskins (2016) Annie Proulx delivers a harrowing account of white man’s devastation of the American forests. Her rich descriptions of the “citrine, viridian emerald” woodlands that once carpeted the entire continent of North America shifts quickly to accounts, covering three centuries, of mass butchering and despoiling of this beautiful land. Beginning in the 17th Century with vivid depiction of the lives of two Frenchmen, Charles Duquet and René Sel, working an indentured laborers felling trees in the northeast (present day New Foundland), Proulx introduces the theme that runs the length of her 717 page novel – the Christian belief in man’s dominion over all life on earth, their passionate desire to tame the lands they commandeered under the ‘Doctrine of Discovery.’ We hear from the native descendants of René Sel, who married into the Mi’kmaw tribe, struggling to understand the whiteman’s hunger for felling trees while many of them succumb to the life of lumberjacks for the sake of their families’ survival. From the other side, the Duquet family becomes the Duke family timber empire, one generation after the other working westward wiping our millions of acres of America’s virgin forests, then expanding to New Zealand and the Amazon jungle. The final generations in the story, native descendants of Sel and some of the Duke family defy their ancestor’s attitude of infinite forests and commit their lives to reforestation, admitting that their efforts are too little, too late. Proulx, who also wrote Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, is an impassioned writer, marshalling every detail of her stories into vivid realities that expose new truths.

 

  • André Schwarz-Bart’s 1959 novel The Last of the Just is among the most compelling books I’ve ever read about the plight of the Jewish people. The author, a Polish Jew, who fled to France with his family in the mid-1930s, traces the history of ‘The Just Men’ (36 righteous people, the ‘Lamed Vav’, who suffer for their people) back to the time of Jesus, focusing the story on the last, Ernie Levy. He and his family suffer the full wrath of the Nazis. In the later part of the book, Ernie commiserates with his young wife about why the Christians have hated the Jews so much and so long: “It’s very mysterious. They don’t know why themselves. I’ve been in their churches and I’ve read their gospel. Do you know who the Christ was? A simple Jew like your father, a kind of Hasid.” Golda, his wife chides, “No you’re kidding me.” No, no, believe me, and I’ll bet they’d have got along fine, the two of them, because he was really a good Jew, you know, sort of like the Baal Shem Tov – a merciful man, and gentle. The Christians say they love him, but I think they hate him without knowing it. So they take the cross by the other end and make a sword out of it and strike us with it! . . . Poor Jesus, if he came back to earth and saw that the pagans had made a sword out of him and used it against his sisters and brothers, he’d be sad, he’d grieve forever.”

 

  • The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro plunges the reader into the depths of pre-WWII politics in America as experienced by a talented abstract artist, Alizée, obsessed with rescuing her family from Nazi-dominated Europe. It’s an incredibly well-researched historical novel that includes Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko on their way to pioneering the American Abstract Expressionist art movement, as well as Eleanor Roosevelt and her nemesis, Beckingridge Long, the man responsible for blocking U.S. visas that would have saved the lives 190,000 European Jews. Another young artist, Alizée’s niece, Dainelle, provide the modern counterpoint to the story as she tries to solve the mystery of her aunt’s disappearance in 1940. Shaprio’s novel is compelling throughout, the end startling as it is satisfying.

 

  • When reading heartrending stories, I find myself hoping that it has all come from the depths of a fertile imagination, not from the life experience of the author. Black & White (2008), by Dani Shapiro, is just such a book. Fourteen years after Clara escaped New York and her childhood, she returns, reluctantly to visit her dying mother. Clara still cringes at the possibility of strangers recognizing her as ‘Ruth Dunne’s daughter.’ Her mother became an internationally celebrated photographer with a series of photos of Clara. Artistically posed in various settings, what started as quality one-on-one time with her mother when Clara was three became masterful manipulation of a teenager becoming overpowered by public recognition and by the vulnerability her mother captured so well in the photos of her nude daughter. With the support of her saintly patient husband and her own young daughter Clara reclaims and shares her childhood and works toward forgiveness as her mother’s life ebbs away, sill famous, still demanding, hoping for redemption. It’s a beautifully told story.

 

  • Barn Blind (1980) is Jane Smiley’s first published novel. Her talent for presenting farm families, offering up diverse family members with fascinating detail, is immediately apparent in her first book. The fact of it being her first also becomes apparent, not for any lack of depth or style. The story is centered on four children, ages 13 to 18, giving themselves up to another summer of equestrian training on their mother’s horse farm, and each in their own way reacting to the dominant role their mother, Kate, plays in their lives. Smiley’s obvious familiarity with horses comes through in beautifully rendered descriptions. We get to know the horses nearly as well as the family. But, as each of Kate’s children present their point-of-view, each forecasting the adult lives waiting for them, we sense something waiting to happen, something tragic. When that moment comes at the end of the book, it’s heartrending in its poignance, but for the entire family it is a ‘crossing of the Rubicon’, a defining moment that, because it comes at the very end it leaves the reader no time to fold it back into the story.

 

  • Written by James Alexander Thom and his Shawnee wife, Dark Rain Thom, Warrior Woman tells the life story of Nonhelema, the famed female Shawnee Chief.
  • thoms
  • Co-Authors, husband & wife, James Alexander Thom and     Dark Rain Thom
  • Well known in the early history of the United States as a peacemaker, Nonhelema spoke fluent English, French, German, a half a dozen tribal languages and the trails and peoples from Virginia and Pennsylvania to the Mississippi. The Thoms provide an indepth chronicle of the Shawnee’s duplicitous dealings with both Americans and British during the Revolutionary War through the eyes of Nonhelema. Her tribe, before white men’s interference, promoted a wonderful balance between men and women. Women were honored, even envied for being the givers of life. Men felt the honor of being hunters and warriors to sustain and protect their families. Tribal decisions, like going to war, were a function of two councils. The men held a war council, the women a peace council. If the men voted for war but the women voted for peace, there would be no war. They made decisions like making war, or any major tribal move only when both councils agreed. Even more than with the progression of white men’s betrayal, Nonhelema struggles with the Christian teachings highlighted by the demand for unquestioned respect and obedience by Brother David, the missionary who baptized her. At the end of her life, having tried to be a Christian and a peacemaker, she rebelled against Brother David, saying “You say we women must obey our husbands. The Master-of-Life did not make men and women to order each other about or to obey each other! He gave the man hunting to do as his way to help his wife and children, and told him to fight for his people if they were in danger. All the rest he gave to women — Man and woman, he made them both worth the same.” This novel is immensely rich, vivid and engaging.

 

  • Only a master novelist like Leon Uris could manage to so deftly weave among a dozen characters over generations and achieve an 827-page story that is seamless. Redemption (1995) is family history (the Larkins of Ireland whom Uris introduced in his earlier novel Trinity) set on the vast stage of world history – settlement in New Zealand, the WWI Gallipoli battle and the Irish Republican fight for independence. But, except for ‘private diary’ notes from Winston Churchill scattered through the book, it never reads like history. It’s a story of passionate love, of family solidarity torn by the rivalry of fathers and sons. Uris manages to combine religious soul-searching, terrorist plots, trench warfare and irrepressible romantic love with the lyrical flow of a long Irish ballad.

 

  • Rebecca Walker’s debut novel, Adé (2013) is a compelling love story, so concise and evocative that you will want to read all 112 pages in one sitting. Farida and her best friend, both 21st Century college students, are inspired to explore the mysteries of Africa. On a small island off the coast of Kenya, Farida falls deeply in love with a young Swahili man named Adé. She is prepared to abandon all the trappings of her American life for a simple Muslim lifestyle with the love of her life when the reality of tropical illness and civil war intercede. This short novel is at once a classic love story and a beguiling sketch of a simple, sweet lifestyle that feels almost otherworldly.

 

  • Rebecca West’s The Birds Fall Down is a great book. Throughout it, I felt like I was reading a classic Russian novel, with deep intellectual moral dialogues and monologues throughout the story – something I think West intended. While the turn of the century, pre-Russian Revolution characters developed in the first half, she laid out the subtleties of the spy plot that drove the later half of the book into a compelling page-turner. After I finished the book this morning I finally read West’s forward in which she named some of the real characters that made up this novel – it was a ‘roman a clef’ as the French say (‘novel with a key’, real life overlaid with a façade of fiction). The story is told from the point-of-view of Laura, an 18 year old woman, half-Russian, half-English (aristocratic on both sides), innocent, naïve, yet extremely well educated, fluent in five languages including two types of Russian that, as West asserts in her forward could really have existed at the turn of the century. A reader like me is even more naïve to the circumstances of the plot – the pre-socialist Russian revolutionaries, leading up to and even creating the opportunity for Lenin to take the reigns of the movement, the double agent working for the Tsar and the terrorists, and the off-handed reference to the French (most of the story takes place in France) obsession at the time with The Dreyfuss Affair. All of it so compelling, so rich with the details of fin de siècle style of art and décor, horse hooves on cobblestone, beautiful gowns, plush ladies hats and tailored suits. The final pages are priceless as Laura’s mother contemplates the coming century, believing it will be free of war, the poor masses lifted from their suffering, modern medicine letting everyone live long, healthy lives and industry making life easy, efficient and pleasant throughout the world.

 

 

3 Responses to What Rhody’s Reading

  1. DO says:

    Ilook forward to taking a speed – reading course from you, and THEN reading all your favorites

    Liked by 1 person

  2. pam jones says:

    I’m adding some of your choices to my long, long list. Some of the authors I’ve read, although not the particular book you have recommended by that author, I’ve read Cold Mountain by Frazier, although he is not one of my favorites. However, I will try Nightwoods on your suggestion. By the way, I live just over the mountain from him and he does describe these mountains beautifully. May I suggest a recent book I read ? Ann Patchett’s: Truth and Beauty. One of the most powerful books I’ve read this past year.

    Like

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