Shared Books from Summer and Autumn 2010
This summer, money was tight. Not just for me, but nearly everyone I know. Sign of the times: first things that are forfeited are books. That didn't stop me from finding spare sources. Lending library at work, various friends and co-workers who had novels they'd finished. Thus I started reading books that normally I would not have chosen. These are some of the offerings.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her novel March, Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book published in 2008. She's the wife of Tony Horwitz, a favorite author of mine, and in this work she creates a new inspirational story of a book and the people who sacrificed to bring the ancient book to present day relatively unscathed. The twists and turns aren't always expected.
Ms. Brooks is from Australia and fictionalizes the back-story for a rare book expert from Australia, and tells of the tidbits of history related to a rare Hebrew manuscript called a Haggadah found in Sarajevo. The journey of the novel takes the reader through history and through personal growth for the main character. For me, I found the entwining of history and fiction well crafted. Mostly I was envious of skills of the craftsmen who created the history book. She gives details about the physical construction of the book that are amazing. Geraldine Brooks explains in her afterword that the Hebrew codex had actually been inspired by a true story.
Most of what the book did for me was create a hunger for more knowledge. The author tells of the horrors in war times, then and now. She brings to life slices of people and their world who were alive during some tragic times, and how they did a piece of the work on the Haggadah. She makes history accessible and bittersweet on some levels.
In Maureen Lindley's The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel the journey is from a different time and place. This book vividly sketches out Peking and Japan during the turn of the last century. It is based on the true story of a rebellious woman who was a spy during a time when Japan and China were at odds. She finds herself torn between being Chinese and Japanese in a topsy-turvy world not of her making. She uses every advantage to carve her way out of a society that dismisses women as little more than commodities to be bought, sold, and traded at will. She tries to learn, but readily admits to the dark side of her nature. That makes sense given how the very family that should have protected her abandoned her so easily. Her lust for life and her ability to be a chameleon serves her well nearly to the end of her story.
This was Ms. Lindley's first novel and I am looking forward to her next offering. She takes great pains to craft a sense of inevitability to how her main character ends up. Having studied Japanese and Chinese culture in school, I found the author's voice strong and realistic.
Another novel I was given to read was by Anne Tyler called The Amateur Marriage. Ms. Tyler has written many novels and her novel The Accidental Tourist was made into a decent movie. This 2004 novel is spanning three generations of a Baltimore family. It begins with the meeting of the main characters and slowly winds the reader through their paths. World War II pushes them into a fast wedding and from there the train wreck heads down the tracks obviously as the author intends. I'll be honest here; (yeah versus my usual fiction and fabrication) I wasn't overly thrilled by the story. I read the well-crafted story and shrugged mostly. I didn't much care for how quickly the author shot to the ending after spending many chapters on building up the tensions and the rationalizations for who they were and weren't.
She glossed over the parts I was interested in, and spent far too much time detailing things I found to be minor and not impressive. But it was a free book, so I can't complain too much. I did find the information about Baltimore to be somewhat interesting but I don't know that I'll ever pick up another one of her books on purpose.
Cathleen Schine's The Three Weissmanns of Westport, on the other hand, was a delight. Instead of laboring through the bad, the women actually embrace the changes in their lives when the mother is informed by her husband of nearly fifty years that he wants a divorce. Of course, there's another woman involved but that takes a back seat to the main characters. The women each have personal challenges that result in them all ending up in Westport living in a cottage on a cousin's property. They go through life and life changing choices that pull the reader along cheerfully and with a few outright chuckles. Not weak women -- just women that faced some confrontations and became stronger for it.
Ms. Schine has her characters go from Westport to Palm Springs in a humorous interlude. The snowbirding is accented by the original dialogue and slices of Palm Springs that are reality. That alone made me smile at the author's familiarity with Palm Springs, and life along one of the many golf course modern day Peyton Places. She makes her characters believable and at the same time entertaining.
Pai Kit Fai writes an amazing tale called The Concubine's Daughter. I had heard of the novel long ago, and I wasn't disappointed. It took a step beyond what I'd found in Maureen Lindley's The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel and for me was more in depth and detailed. The author has ties to a founding Hong Kong Eurasian family and I think it helped flavor the novel.
The main character is brought into the world and nearly slain by her own father. Once she escapes the various perils in her time, she goes to find a true love and birth her own child. Nothing goes easy for either of the two women, but at the same time, China wasn't easy on their girls during this era. The choices made are what choices life had left the two women. The first woman Li-Xia avoids foot binding and slavery on a silk farm once she is given away. The story explains the choices women had and why, without being heavy handed or overly preachy. It was just the facts of the time.
I liked that the second character, Li-Xia's daughter was stronger and more than a single dimensional character. Siu-Sing is raised in relative privacy in a remote area, and yet men who want to betray her and harm her still challenge the girl. She rises above the horrors of the times and finds her place. The slice into China and the politics of the times rang true, and I found it informative. This book made me sad, yet appreciative for when and where I was born.
Anita Shreve wrote Fortune's Rocks highlighting a beach town in New Hampshire at the turn of the century. Since my sister and her family just moved to New Hampshire, I reluctantly read past the usual cut-off point for bad novels (fifty pages -- or whenever I want to vomit due to stupid or bad writing). It turned out it was a better novel than how it started out. The main character is a girl turning into a woman; she becomes enamored of a local writer her father has brought into their summer home. The man gives into temptation and allows himself to become sexually involved with the teenager to inevitable conclusion.
When I expected it to veer one direction, it actually allowed the character to grow up and get a backbone despite the earlier characterization of a self-absorbed spoiled rich girl. I still wasn't thrilled by the book, and have to say it was truly awful.
A novel I actually bought earlier this year spoiled me. Written by Jonathon King, I found a book that transported me effectively back to 1904 or so. Jonathon King, an award-winning journalist who writes a series in a crime series featuring Max Freeman, which is set well in the Everglades and South Florida, ventured out and wrote The Styx.
As I personally know this author, I want to shamelessly whore his website, Jonathon King.com. He has a new novel out, and he's embraced the Kindle generation, I heard, and has something available there. That said, here's the rest of my book review.
Mr. King's novel The Styx is set at the turn of the century and follows a young man, Michael Byrne, a former Pinkerton who makes his way from the heart of New York's Lower East Side down to the unexplored territory of Florida via the railroad built by Henry Flagler. The railroad that he built, that went all the way down to the Keys -- when everyone said it couldn't be done -- is part of what colors this book. The historical fact of Mr. Flagler's grand enterprise makes this fictional book work. Michael finds himself embroiled in murder and cover-ups as he tries to find his way around Palm Beach's Royal Poinciana Hotel. Mr. King's main character is searching for his way while trying to find his long missing brother Danny. Mr. King sketches out a time and a place that was Florida at the turn of the century, all the while giving local color to his work and his characters. The characters ring true, as do the tensions between the greedy landowners and the African-Americans who worked the hotels and various jobs in Florida, and who were shoved into a small piece of land called the Styx.
What I find now is that I need more offerings of books! I hope you find something you like in this mix. If not, don't blame me, I only paid for one of them.
It's me what did you expect?
-- Lydia Manx