Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Post Ironic: June a novel by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

 June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore is a novel that tests the reader’s patience. I kept waiting for resolution of Cassie’s dilemma, but she lacked the will to move, lying in bed in her recently inherited dilapidated mansion. Fresh from New York City where she had a disappointing showing of her photograph work, Cassie is too careless and depressed to pick up her camera. She does keep framing shots in her mind in spite of grieving the death of her grandmother, June.

Into every depression a little sunlight must shine, and in Cassie’s case it comes in the sensations of sound and light, a knock on the door on a sunny day. I expected a rapid turnaround for Cassie but the pace of the novel did not change much with the arrival at her door of a young man approximately Cassie’s age with news about her inheritance. Nick has interesting information that may be life changing for the twenty-five year old recluse living in the small rural town of St. Jude, Ohio.

June had a personal history unknown to her granddaughter that included a brush with the bright lights and glamour of 1950s Hollywood. Famous star Jack Montgomery had come to St. Jude then to shoot part of a movie, and for some mysterious reason Cassie was now the recipient of a hidden legacy. Now I was hooked and settled into the slow-paced unfolding of the story.

The novel is presented in chapters alternating between 1955 and 2015, between June’s young hopeful life and Cassie’s continuing depressive symptoms. I found that I could only read for a short time, an hour at most. After that, when confronted with a new chapter, I put the novel down and looked for other things to do. But patiently, I always looked forward to coming back to June.

As the current saying goes, reading June is not for everyone. The novel is very well-written in the style of good historical novels. The mystery of the novel is in the relationships between characters, both blood and friendship, that create complex patterns of behavior over the decades. Beverly-Wittemore's post-ironic writing is wonderful in her character development and realistic depiction of life past and present in a small isolated Midwestern town. The careful patient reader will be rewarded by very good reading experiences in the 400 page novel.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Taming a Shrew: Vinegar Girl a novel by Anne Tyler

In 2012, Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, launched the Shakespeare Project to publish the works of Shakespeare as retold by acclaimed and best-selling contemporary authors. Vinegar Girl is Anne Tyler’s retelling of the comedy, Taming of the Shrew.

Kate Battista is a young woman, efficient in her role as head of the domestic household in maintaining a stable environment for her eccentric medical researcher father and beautiful but flighty younger sister. Having assumed the role at the early death of her reality challenged mother, Kate has constructed a headstrong and jaundiced personality that keeps all people outside of her little family at bay. Anne Tyler uses Kate as the foundation of a beautifully structured novel that captures the essence of Shakespeare’s play.

A dilemma caused by Pyotr, foreign research assistant to Dr. Battista with an expiring US work visa, causes Kate to react in word, deed, and self-evaluation with an increase in shrewishness. Anne Tyler’s wonderfully written story increases the tension of us readers who want to love Kate but, like other characters in the novel, are put off by her threatening demeanor.

Readers need no artificial incentive to follow the story and take a keen interest in the characters. However, a lovely coups d’oeil opens the reader to a surprising understanding of Kate’s self- concept and the relationships she has with her extended family and Pyotr.

This is one of the best novels I have read in the past year. It is a perfect update of Shakespeare’s work in a contemporary context and structure.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Embedded Life Review: I Am No One a novel by Patrick Flanery

I Am No One, the first novel by Patrick Flanery, is a story of an intelligent man writing a life review in our Western culture dominated by hyper-vigilant surveillance. Jeremy’s review is triggered by evidence he receives of his behavior being tracked by unknown observers who have special access to his personal records. Jeremy's personality characteristics of low key self-aggrandizement, fear of social commitment, passive aggression, chronic depression, and paranoia interact with the paper records of his life that are delivered anonymously to the lobby of his apartment building in New York City. The mundane details of Jeremy’s life become more interesting to him as he writes his autobiography for an unknown audience in the future.

Mr. Flanery writes in a style that includes lengthy sentences composed of simple and direct phrases that flow so that the reader is never lost due to wandering attention. This style fits the narrator’s personality well as he writes the details of his rather mundane personal history.

Jeremy uses an interesting metaphor in his hand-written narrative that involves two circles, a small one inside the circumference of the other. The small circle contains information that Jeremy chooses to describe and understand himself. The larger circle has information about himself selected from sources over which he has no control, and constitute an invasion of privacy via external surveillance. It is interesting that in our age of devaluation of information because of the relatively effortless availability of it, Jeremy’s life review becomes more insightful and his inner circle grows because of being confronted by the unsolicited personal records.

I enjoyed reading this novel by Patrick Flanery and reconsidering the limitations of a restricted life review. In order to look back on personal life history with ego integrity vs despair, a broader context of information gathered for a variety of purposes can show that we play an integral role in the lives of others whether or not we include the include the information in our inner circle of self-awareness. To paraphrase Hemingway, we spend our entire lives trying to learn and understand just a few basic truths that are readily available in our wider surrounding social circle. To continue with Hemingway's thoughts, never confuse movement with action can be extended to the idea of never confusing restricted self-awareness with total social awareness.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Love Conquers All: Half A Lifelong Romance a novel By Eileen Chang

Half a Lifelong Romance is a story of urban families living through Chinese cultural changes that begin with traditional conservative morality and progress to collective communist values in Shanghai in the 1930s. Manzhen Gu and Shijun Shen are the main characters whose romance illustrates the shift from extended family control of career and relationships to state control of individual motivations. The apparent freedom of choice in career and relationships is restricted early on by extended family mores that complicate romance, marriage, financial support roles, and other traditional family responsibilities. There is a complicated calculus of personal motivations and actions among the families of the two lovers that keep them apart.

The descriptions of daily lives of the characters are realistic, detailed, romantic, and tragic creating a historical narrative that has been very popular among Chinese readers. The familiar theme is that individualism can overcome the unjust constraints of the past maintained by the conservatism of traditional families as the culture affords more economic opportunities even as it becomes more controlling of individual social development. Thomas Mann’s early novel Buddenbrooks develops a similar theme in Germany following 4 generations of an urban family in the 19th Century. As in our current US society, both individual personal freedom and restrictive social government progressivism require the compromise of integrity for the goal of survival. In Chan’s novel, compromise is not too high a price to pay when endurance makes possible half a lifelong romance. It is better than no romance at all.

This is a very good novel with a translation by Karen S. Kingsbury that consistently reflects the historical period in Shanghai.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Covenant: Shylock Is My Name a novel by Howard Jacobson

Shylock is My Name is a novel that describes people who covenant at many levels, deep and shallow. As in Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is a Jewish character who is complex, a contemporary term for a man capable of maintaining multiple often contradictory ideas. Strulovich, a Jewish contemporary of Shylock, is more of a purist, absolute about his covenant of religion. Shylock, the reformer in Howard Jacobson’s novel, attempts to influence the thinking of Strulovich about the exclusivity of the traditionalist’s theology. For Shylock, it does not seem to be a matter of accumulated tradition and strictly observed custom that can make the Jewish people resilient and capable of a strong cultural identity. This commitment has caused the purists to incite rebellion against parents by the younger generation, thin-skinned sensitivity to the thousand little daily insults of the older generation, and poorly defined acts of revenge by the survivors of outsider anti-Semitic atrocities. Shylock points out to Strulovich indirectly and directly the consequences of his rigidity of beliefs. The Jew has to maintain a morality in the present age that is more flexible, forgiving, and intelligent or subtle and violent conflicts will be perpetuated against the people’s all-encompassing covenant.

The drama plays out in the novel in a story similar to that of one of Shakespeare’s most interesting plays. The structure of the action reminds me of The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann in respect to the interaction of Shylock and Strulovich. It is similar in many ways, in my mind, to the lengthy discussions in Mann’s novel between the secular humanist Lodovico Settembrini and the former purist Jew (now Jesuit) Leo Naphta. I imagined sitting out on a balcony of a hotel in the Alps wrapped in a warm blanket contemplating both novels, oddly wishing I belonged to group with an ideology that is all-encompassing at both mundane and devine levels, enjoying the harmony and dissonance.

I enjoyed reading Howard Jacobson’s novel as much as I did reading an earlier novel by the author, The Finkler Question. I give it my highest rating.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Short Supply: Time of Useful Consciousness a novel by Jennifer Ott

Time of Useful Consciousness by Jennifer Ott is an exciting novel of post-World War II Germany. The title is an interesting term in aviation that provides a powerful metaphor for describing the very difficult social/economic conditions of the time period in Deutschland. Louisa Unger is a pilot, rare in a man’s specialty area. Successful in her flight training, Louisa becomes involved inadvertently in an airborne smuggling operation and is arrested and confined to an American Military prison. Louisa is interrogated, and she tells the story of Germans trying to reconstruct their country and deal with the guilt of the War-time atrocities of the Nazi regime.

Louisa’s account of the year preceding her capture involves descriptions of flying, personal relationships, post-War hardships, and difficult conflict resolutions. Time of Useful Consciousness (TUC) is the amount of time an individual is able to perform flying duties efficiently in an environment of inadequate oxygen supply. The aftermath of war waged within a country is a shortage of adequate resources to rebuild its culture on a grand scale. There is also a decreased supply of personal resilience to reconnect with family and develop new loving relationships in an atmosphere low on moral identity. Some of Ott’s characters, like Louisa, react positively in the TUC physical/social environment and others negatively making for an exciting narrative. I give the novel 4 stars for its unique and interesting historical perspective.

I was given a copy of the novel by the author for an honest review.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Distant Photographs: The Photographer's Wife by Suzanne Joinson

The Photographer’s Wife is an interesting story of characters living in tumultuous times in Jerusalem between the two World Wars. The story begins in 1920 in Jerusalem as an architect Charles Ashton develops odd plans to partly redesign the Holy City by creating English style parks. A na├»ve but keen observer of the interaction of the characters is Ashton’s daughter, 11 year old Prudence, who takes her own photographs and writes her impressions (in codes) of events. She observes the relationship of Lieutenant William Harrington, a pilot hired by her father to take aerial photos of Jerusalem and Eleanora Rasul wife of an eminent photographer Khaled Rasul. Complicated personal relationships develop mirroring the volatile social/political situation in the Holy City.

Jerusalem is similar to Alexandria at the time, with a rich fusion of British, Eastern, and European characters all striving to meet their personal needs and to influence the future of the region according to their own political motivations. Similar to the situation in Alexandria depicted in the Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, Joinson describes growing resentment of Colonial British activities by competing factions in Jerusalem.

Jumping from 1920 to 1937, “Prue” is an artist and single mother living quitely in Shoreham by the Sea, Sussex. She and her son have escaped the pressures of the London art world in the aftermath of the Surrealist impact on exhibitions, and Prue is recovering from a tumultuous marriage breakup. Lieutenant Harrington comes back into Prue’s life causing her to review her early life in Jerusalem considering secrets important in her personal life and the political history of the Middle East region between Wars.

Joinson’s style of writing in The Photographer’s Wife keeps the reader at a distance from the characters. Readers may find it difficult to identify with the characters living in Jerusalem or even care much about them in the beginning. British colonials, exiled Armenians, and Greek, Arab, and Jewish officials all vie for personal gain and political power. This is also true of Durrell’s four volume work in which readers are held at bay relying on the narration of characters living in Alexandria who are caught up in contemporary circumstances and unconscious life choices in a city with a long and complicated history. A large part of the international crisis in the Middle East today may be due to the impossibility of understanding all of the chaotic personal and political interactions that make up the history of the region. Up until now, there has been a failure of Western/European world leaders to see the negative consequences of being kept at a distance from the inherent intrigue of the area.

Of course, Joinson does not attempt to match the scope, insightful character development, and intense style of Lawrence Durrell. But, the novel will be interesting and engaging for many readers.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Breaking Solitude: The Never-Open Desert Diner a novel by James Anderson

The Never-Open Desert Diner is a good first novel by James Anderson. I like stories of characters conscious of their solitude and thinking about it without running away. Ben Jones is a truck driver in Utah, driving a route that is a day’s journey out and back in a sparsely inhabited stretch of desert. State Road 117 has some turnouts, byways, and an end point with relatively little traffic. He is not fully committed to his solitude as are many OTR truck drivers, but he spends much of every day in solitude. Ben’s past is kept in the background with interesting hints of a much more social and personally risky life left behind.

Time elapses slowly as Ben delivers goods to individuals and small businesses in the vast desert along 117. Ben has relationships with his isolated customers bound by individual rules of privacy learned over time. One of the toughest set of rules is enforced by a 79 year old customer Walt Butterfield, owner of the Desert Diner on US 191. Walt keeps the diner in perfect condition inside and out but does not discuss with Ben why it is never open for business.

This is a great start for a novel, and I looked forward to each chapter. Then, everything changes when Ben’s schedule is interrupted by unexpected events that break the rules of solitude. Changes are the life blood of a novel of character solitude, and nothing lasts forever but the peaceful/violent desert in this novel.

The problem with Anderson’s novel is the relationship and dialogue between Ben and a character new to the desert. It is interesting at the first encounter, but become far too fast-paced, artificially intimate, and symbolic to be believable or consistent with the theme of solitude. Ben and the new resident of the desert off State Road 117 begin to converse in code revealing that they are sudden soul mates existing in a higher plane of empathetic consciousness. After this break in the flow of the novel, there were interesting exciting scenes and good character development, but my keen interest in the story waned. I recommend the novel with my reservations noted.