This book certainly had its charms, and I can understand why it might have been a popular women's novel in its day (it was originally published in 1901). It tells the story of a refined but impoverished woman in her thirties, Miss Emily Fox-Seton, who scratches out a living by assisting her betters to shop wisely and plan parties while remaining obligingly in the background. Just as disaster seems about to befall (her kindly landlady and her daughter plan to give up the house where Emily rooms), wonder of wonders, she receives an unexpected marriage proposal that catapults her into the upper echelon of society. Lord Waldehurst has been won over by Emily's good taste and unprepossessing nature--undoubtedly the dream of many an aging spinster in 1901.
But, alas, it is at this point that the novel falls a bit short for the 21st-century reader. Emily's kindness and naiveté seem to know no bounds. She tries to befriend Alec Osbourne (who has been Lord Waldehurst's sole heir for the past 30 years or so) and his pregnant half-Indian wife, even coaxing her husband--who is about to leave for business in India--to allow her to furnish a house on the estate grounds for their use. It never enters her head that the Osbournes might see her as a potential threat to the property, money, and title that they hope to inherit, and she is hurt and confused by their often surly manners and Hortense's frequent angry outbursts. (When her trusty maid tells Emily that she fears that Amira, Hortense's ayah, is up to no good, Emily encourages her to read Uncle Tom's Cabin to improve her view of "the blacks.") Following several near-misses--accidents that would have been fatal--plus a confession from Hortense that she sometimes hates the now-pregnant Emily and that Alec wants to kill her, Emily feels that the best solution to her dilemma is to take Hortense's advice to "go away" to stay safe until her child is born. Emily's goodness is just too unbelievable; I started to agree with Alec's estimation that she was just "a big fool," and I wanted to smack her back into reality. And the Osbournes and Amira fall into caricatures of villains so evil that I expected even Hortense and Amira to be twirling long black moustachios.
I'm giving the book three stars as a period piece and an example of early 20th century women's novels, and perhaps with some bonus points for Persephone's quite lovely cover. Read it when you are in the mood for pure fluff.
I almost feel guilty giving this book only three and a half stars. Almost. It has been much honored with awards and much praised by reviewers both professional and non-professional, and its subject matter--the hard life of the poor living in one of Mumbai's airport slums--is certainly something of which the world should take more note. But for a number of reasons, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, while a worthy enough book, did not quite live up to my expectations.
The first reason has more, perhaps, to do with me than with Boo's book. I have a great interest in India, it's history and culture. I have read so many books, both fiction and nonfiction, and seen so many documentaries on the subject that I didn't find much here that was new or surprising. Police and government corruption of all kinds; families killing sick or unwanted members; children digging through garbage in search of something to eat or to sell; supposedly 'free' clinics and doctors demanding bribes in return for treatment; neighbors stealing from and turning on one another; young women committing suicide rather than being forced into marriage or, once married, being burned to death in kitchen 'accidents'; children working at jobs we cannot imagine. It's awful, it's brutal. But it's the stuff on which a cadre of works about India are based, at least in part: City of Joy, Q & A (aka Slumdog Millionaire, A Fine Balance, The Death of Vishnu, documentaries like 'Born into Brothels' and National Geographic's 'The Real Slumdogs' and more.
That's not to say that we shouldn't care; but it gets frustrating to read about these problems over and over without knowing what exactly one can do about them. Eighty years ago, it was easy to blame all the corruption and poverty and prejudice on the usurping British; once they were gone, the Hindus blamed it on the Muslims, the Muslims blamed the Hindus, and the Sikhs, Christians, and others got caught in the crossfire. So who or what is to blame today, in an increasingly wealthy India, and how can the ongoing problems of unbelievable poverty be solved? As another LT reviewer points out, Boo seems to want us to do something--but what? In the end, she wants us to be uplifted by the undaunted hope of some of Anawadi's young inhabitants. But it's hard to imagine that hope being sustained in a world where the police beat innocent children wrongfully accused of crimes and take bribes to stop the beatings; where a father pours a pot of boiling lentils on a sick child for whom he can't afford medical treatment; where a woman lights herself on fire, hoping to survive and blame it on her neighbors in hope of both petty revenge and financial restitution; where a boy drinks rat poison because he believes his future holds nothing but either being killed by gang members who know that he witnessed a murder or being beaten to death by the police who questioned him about that murder and covered it up; where a woman starts an organization to make small business loans to other poor women, then takes the funds to buy herself jewelry.
To some extent, I felt that Boo was piling on the horrors so thickly that it was difficult to stay focused on the main individuals whose stories she was telling. At other times, the stories were so familiar that I felt I was reading fiction. The narrative jumps around quite a bit, from character to character and back and forth in time, and with the large number of persons involved, it is easy to get lost and blur them all together. And that also makes it hard to stay focused on or empathize strongly with any one character. This is a problem, because what, I think, Boo hopes to achieve is to put a face on each of the suffering poor, not to lump them into the anonymous 'teeming masses'.
So overall, would I recommend this book? Despite the comments above, yes, perhaps especially to those who haven't read, seen or heard much about the lives of India's slum dwellers. It's hard for Americans and others in more generally prosperous countries to imagine their world, but knowing about it does make one grateful for what we have.
And leaves us wishing we knew what we could do to help them to help themselves.
Toibin's collection of biographical literary essays focuses on the relationships between writers and their parents and the effects these relationships had upon their work. There's something here for everyone--which is both the book's strength and its weakness. While I read them all, this is the kind of collection from which a reader might best pick and choose. For me, the most intriguing essays were those on Jane Austen, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, and Roddy Doyle, writers whose work I already enjoy. (Sorry to say, however, that Yeats comes off as somewhat of an idiot tyrant; in a second essay, Toibin devotes equal time to George, Yeats's much ill-treated wife.)
With the exception of the section on Hart Crane, about whom I knew little but who led a particularly sad, brief life dominated by a snobbish, overbearing mother, I was less interested in Toibin's essays on writers whose work I either haven't read or don't particularly care for, among them Samuel Beckett, Sebastian Barry, Thomas Mann, Jorge Luis Borges, and John Cheever. The effect of Toibin's essays on Mann and Cheever confirmed that I will probably never want to read their works; both come off as nasty, cruel human beings whose families suffered their worst abuse. I learned nothing that I didn't already know from the essay on Tennessee Williams, but it would probably be interesting to someone who came to it fresh.
Toibin includes two essays on James Baldwin. The first, "James Baldwin and the 'American Confusion,'" provides an interesting discussion of the writer's place in U.S. literature, despite his ex-patriot status. In the second, Toibin compares the works of Baldwin and Barack Obama, both "Men without Fathers." I felt that he strained a bit too much to be haut courant in his effort to show Obama channeling Baldwin's prose style.
Toibin is a sensitive reader who arrives at some brilliant insights, and he has unearthed intriguing tidbits about each author's life that make the essays more enjoyable than straight literary criticism might have been. Still, like me, most readers will probably find the collection rather uneven. (I thought the essay on Borges was never going to end, and it seemed quite repetitive.) To be best appreciated at its best, go at New Ways to Kill Your Mother like a box of fine chocolates: savor them one at a time. You'll find some of those darn jellies in the bunch, but there are enough caramels and cherry cordials to make it worth your while.
As a fan of Barker's brilliant Regeneration series, I had high hopes for Toby's Room, but I confess to being somewhat underwhelmed. Art student Elinor Brooke, familiar to readers of Life Class, returns at the heart of the story. World War I is peering over the horizon but has not yet crossed the English shores, and Elinor's greatest concerns are her art classes at the Slade, her parents' dissolving marriage, and her close relationship with her older brother Toby. But something disturbing happens, causing a rupture that brother and sister can never quite repair. Still, Elinor persists with her classes and Toby finished his medical degree. And then the war takes over.
Fast forward a few years. Toby has signed up as a medic and is serving in France, and Elinor is getting a bit bored with the Slade, uncertain of what she will do when her studies are completed. News comes that Toby has gone missing in action and is presumed dead. Shortly after, a package with his belongings arrives, and Elinor finds a brief note among them, addressed to her. In it, Toby mysteriously reveals that he won't be coming back. Convinced that he must still be alive, Elinor sets out to solve the mystery. She enlists the help of Paul Tarrant, a fellow Slade student and former lover who has just returned from the war with a severe leg injury, and the two of them focus on another former student, Kit Neville, who served with Toby as a stretcher bearer. Kit is among the patients of Dr. Harold Gillies (a factual person, the 'father' of modern plastic surgery) at Queen Mary Hospital, all of whom have suffered traumatic facial injuries.
Fortunately for Elinor, she is offered a job by Henry Tonks (another real person), her former professor, drawing the faces of the injured. The purpose of the drawings is educational: to assist Dr. Gillies in facial reconstruction and to create an archive of his efforts for other surgeons. In this capacity, she is able to visit Kit, but he is either unable or unwilling to tell her anything about Toby's apparent demise. Paul strikes up an uneasy friendship with Kit, partly out of sympathy for a fellow artist and wounded warrior, but partly in hopes of aiding Elinor.
The truth is finally revealed in the last pages of the book. Don't worry--no spoilers here. But I am rather puzzled at just how Toby got from Point A to Point C. Barker seems to imply a cause-and-effect between two events that just doesn't make sense to me. Putting that aside, however, there are many things to commend in Toby's Room. The characters are well drawn and, as always, Barker gives us a portrait of war and its effects on human lives that is both brutal and poignant. While I can't recommend this novel as highly as Regeneration, it is certainly worth reading, especially for Barker fans or for those interested in the impact of the war on those at home and the extraordinary efforts to mend the wounded.
The reader, Nicola Barber, is very well cast and does a fine job.
Let the Great World Spin is one of those "must read" books that everyone raves about but that I somehow resisted reading until now. What finally pushed me to read it was how much I admired McCann's most recent novel, Transatlantic. While I ended up being mildly disappointed, maybe that's good news: since Transatlantic is so much the better of the two, that must mean that McCann's writing is getting better, and I can look forward to his next endeavor.
I'm a great fan of novels told from multiple points of view and in multiple voices, but a number of things in this novel smacked too hard of artifice, in my opinion. For one thing, there were just too many coincidences. I get it: New York may be a big city, but in the end, we're living in a small world. Well . . . really, it's not THAT small. The judge who sentences the prostitute is married to the woman who is in a group for grieving mothers whose sons were killed in Vietnam where she meets an African-American woman who is the neighbor who takes in the granddaughters of the prostitute because the prostitute's daughter was killed in an automobile accident, and the driver, who was also killed, was the monk who devoted his life to watching out for prostitutes, and his brother figures out that the woman who comes to the girl's funeral was in the car that caused the hit-and-run, but they fall in love and get married . . . um, no, sorry, the world is rarely that small and our lives are rarely that contrived. I would have enjoyed the novel more had McCann not felt compelled to devise such links between each character's story. It really wasn't necessary, since he already relied on the frame of Petit's tightrope walk between the World Trade Center Towers, which at least half of the characters have seen or heard about. I hope that McCann structures his next novel on something other than unexpected coincidences--something that he used in Transatlantic as well, but with a much subtler hand.
My feelings about the characters themselves are mixed. Too many of them--especially the minority characters--fall into stereotypes, and to some extent, the book is just too big and too ambitious to allow us to get a real sense of any of them. Some, like the California hackers, seemed totally pointless (not to mention irritating).
By now, you may be wondering if I liked anything about this book and why I gave it 3.5 stars. Well, there are those moments when the writing itself absolutely soars, and these moments make it all worthwhile. McCann has a touch of the poet in him, and when he doesn't let it get away from him and flounder into the melodramatic, his writing can be wonderful. And in retrospect, it's interesting to see how much he has progressed in using similar techniques in Transatlantic.
So . . . 3.5 stars. If you haven't read Transatlantic yet, you really should. Skip Let the Great World Spin and then wait for McCann's next novel.
On the audiobook: I normally don't care for versions that use multiple actors for the various narrators, but it worked quite well here, and each narrator did a veryh fine job.
This is one of the most difficult reviews that I can remember writing. I am extremely conflicted about Anthony Marra's debut novel. My head pulls me in one direction, but my gut pulls me in another: which way should I go? and where should I start?
There are many gushing reviews here already, and most of them repeat the plot outline and character descriptions. I will avoid those routes as much as possible; read elsewhere if that is what you seek.
Let's start with the points of conflict.
1) Marra's prose is stunningly beautiful. Marra's prose is too stunningly beautiful.
How can that be? Well, at many points in the novel, I simply got lost in it, more caught up in the turn of phrase, the image, the way a sentence seemed to meander on forever, leaving me with a sense of anticipation, waiting . . . waiting . . . waiting . . . for that exquisite final . . . what, exactly? The end of the sentence? And where were we, and what was happening to . . which character was that again? In other words, while, overall, I greatly admire Marra's mastery of language and can point to a number of exquisite and even perfect passages, I sometimes felt that style conquered substance. I'm well aware that this opinion deviates from the popular one, but there it is. A few readers have complained that the book is unnecessarily long, mainly due to lengthy 'poetic' descriptions, and I'm leaning towards agreement with them.
2) The events in the book and the connections among the characters are believable. Most of the events in the book are believable, but there are way too many extraordinary coincidences.
The horrors of the Chechnyan wars, the killings, the torture, the missing, the betrayals of friends and family members are, as depicted, all too real. Marra gives us the worst of human nature and the lengths to which we will go to preserve our own lives. And he also gives us moments of hope, generosity, and selflessness--the other side of the coin. But the coincidences seemed stretched. For example: The missing sister of Sonja, the female Russian doctor, just happens to have been the nurse who eight years earlier delivered the infant Havaa, the girl now brought to Sonja by Ahkmed, the Chechan doctor who just started working for her, who happened to be at the birth with his friend Dokka, the new father, who also happened several years later to shelter this same nurse in his home when she was a refugee . . . I know the population was cut down significantly in a decade of wars, but I just didn't buy this, or several other similar circumstances.
3) The characterizations were brilliant.
No argument here. Even the most reprehensible characters, such as Ramzan the informer, were thoroughly and believably developed in such a way that I had to empathize with their motives, even when I did not agree with them. I loved Ahkmed, the character whose loyalties were the most divided but at the same time the most clear, and Khassan, the aged historian who loved, pitied, and hated his son and struggled every minute to determine the moral right. Even the minor characters were unique individuals, carefully drawn and memorable.
4) The book taught me a lot that I didn't know about the Chechan wars. The book really didn't teach me anything about the Chechan wars.
War is hell. The Chechan wars were hell. I still don't have a really clear idea of what caused them or the ideology of the opposing sides.
That's probably enough to draw this to a conclusion. Overall, I enjoyed the book (although "enjoyed" seems like the wrong word for a novel in which there is so much suffering; maybe I should say that I admired it or was completely engrossed with it). There were, however, several rather long stretches that seemed to drag on forever. It took me quite awhile to finish the book, but the last third or so went really fast. I'm giving it a 4-star rating--which is open to change upon reflection, but I feel pretty sure that it will stand. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena certainly gets my recommendation, and I look forward to Marra's next effort.
On the reader: I thought she did a good job. Some reviewers complained that her voice was too monotone, but I did not find this to be the case. She has the right tone for a story that is, after all, mostly serious, and she did well with the various accents.
Once again, Maggie O'Farrell creates a set of well-developed characters and turns her focus to complex family dynamics. The year is 1976, and England is in the midst of a heatwave. While his wife Gretta follows her usual morning bread baking routine, recent retiree Robert Riordan goes for his morning walk--and doesn't return. As most of us would do in a time of crisis, Gretta calls the family together for support. There's her favorite, Monica, a childless woman married to a second husband whose daughters despise her; Michael Francis, a high school history teacher who hates his job and whose ideal family may not be so ideal behind closed doors; and Aiofe, the so-called black sheep, who never seemed to get anything right and had moved to New York eight years earlier to escape the constant criticism and disappointments.
As they reunite to decide how to proceed in finding Robert, repressed emotions, individual frailties, and long-held secrets come to the surface. O'Farrell does a masterful job of moving from one perspective to another and between past and present, showing us the truth within each character and the source of their misperceptions about one another. Towards the end, we learn that the children aren't the only ones living lives built of facades: Gretta and Robert have their own buried secrets.
In the end, many threads are left to be untangled. The lack of a neatly tied-up conclusion might be considered a flaw, but it also highlights the fact that the relationships among the Riordans and her characters' psyches are O'Farrell's intended focus, more so than the story of a missing person. The writing here is quite fine; not only are the descriptions vivid and the dialogue believable, but the author has a gift for subtly evoking a reader's empathy even for characters who may not be on their best behavior. Instructions for a Heatwave may not be the best Maggie O'Farrell novel I've read, but it comes pretty close.
John Lee is one of my all-time favorite narrators, and he gets to use his wonderful brogue in this one--a delight to listen to!
After listening to the first hour or so of Life After Life, I couldn't decide whether it was brilliant or lazy writing (lazy in the sense that the frame is simply the old writer's trick of coming up with multiple endings for a story in progress). I'm still not certain, but I'm leaning towards semi-brilliant.
What this is NOT is a story about reincarnation per se, despite the claim of several reviewers and the prefatory Nietzsche quote. In each of her "lives," Ursula Todd is the same person with the same name and the same family, born on the same day, in the same year; hers is not a spirit that passes on from one being or form to another. The book is also touted as a meditation on the choices that we make and the consequences that follow, suggesting the "What if?" that is the basis of the writer's exercise mentioned above. In each story/life, Ursula makes different choices or falls into different circumstances that lead to different outcomes, from being strangled by the umbilical cord during birth (hardly what I'd call a choice) to mundane deaths, violent deaths, accidental deaths, and into old age. Towards the end of the novel, she makes an observation that all time seems to be simultaneous--a metaphysical statement that may as easily be the novel's theme. "It seemed even the instability of time can't be relied upon," the young Ursula observes. In a later episode, Ursula experiences a moment of panic riddled with déja vu:
"She had been here before. She had never been here before. . . The past seemed to leak into the present, as if there was a fault somewhere, or was it the future spilling into the past? . . . Time was out of joint, that was certain."
Whatever its theme, Life After Life is a captivating story. In many aspects, the Todd family seems to represent the typical middle class British family of the last century, yet each member is also distinctive in his or her own right. Some, like Ursula's surly oldest brother Maurice, remain constant through each retelling; others, like her mother Sylvie, change considerably in reaction to events. It's easy to engage with interesting secondary characters like her wild aunt Izzie, Bridget the Irish maid, Miss Wolfe, and others. The depictions of the Blitz, brutal but realistic, are particularly affecting. Atkinson helps the reader to experience what life must have been like for those who experienced death and destruction on a massive scale, sensibilities numbed and life dominated by the need to carry on. However, I did find the long episode in Berlin with Eva Braun a bit tedious, although it does eventually link to others.
Atkinson's writing is indeed fine, at times poetic, at other times tersely straightforward, always perfectly pitched for the tone of the moment. Those moments range from charming to horrific, from humorous to spiritual, from jubilant to sorrowful--all the emotions of Ursula's many lives. Life After Life is, in fact, quite an emotional ride. At the conclusion, it still feels a bit unsettled and experimental, unsure of just what it means to convey to its readers. Still, the fact that it entertains so well while making one ask significant questions merits a strong recommendation. Fenella Woolgar, a reader I've not encountered before, does a very fine job indeed.
As one of the apparently rare few who wasn't blown away by Half of a Yellow Sun, I took a gamble on Adichie's short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck--and I'm very glad that I did. These twelve stories all feature Nigerian protagonists, but the settings, time periods, and situations shift from the 1967 Biafran war, to immigrants in the contemporary United States, back to a time when white missionaries were still a rare sight in Nigeria. Many of the stories deal with women struggling to balance between the old ways and the new, but Adichie also focuses on Nigeria's brutal politics, history of violence, divisive class system, and exploitation by the west. But behind those messages are real characters--real people--working hard at relationships and trying to make tomorrow just a little better than today. Adichie's writing itself is engaging and compelling, and the stories have encouraged me to seek out her other novels. Perhaps even to give Half of a Yellow Sun another try.
The reader does wonderful characterizations of both male and female characters. If I have one criticism of this audiobook, it's the transitions between stories--or, rather, the lack of any. Most of the stories don't end with a bang; they come to a gentle, even subtle conclusion, and the recording doesn't leave much of a pause between them. Often I was several minutes into a story before I realized that it was a new one with entirely different characters. Readers are justified in expecting at least a five-second pause to indicate a shift in time, place, and characters, and to let a conclusion settle in.
Well, I'm not quite sure what to say about this one. So let me start by saying that Jennifer Connolly was an excellent reader. For most of the book, she maintained a flat, blasé tone that was just right for the story of Port and Kit Moresby, two bored, falling out of love with each other Ameriocans traveling in post-war North Africa.
Bowles certainly had an eye for detail and a knack for atmospheric writing: he puts the reader right in the center of North Africa, from the smoke-filled cafes to the dry stretches of the Sahara to the gritty streets. Port and Kit (joined at times by another American, Tunner, an an odious British mother and son, the Lyles) travel through various cities and landscapes, trying, in part, to sort out their troubled marriage. But infidelity and/or suspicion get the better of both of them, and the two travel on separate paths, at least until a crisis briefly reunites them.
I was quite enjoying the novel, despite its darkness and deeply nihilistic theme, when WHAM! All of a sudden I found myself in the middle of 'The Sheik' with Rudolph Valentino. I sat scratching my head for awhile, wondering what the heck just happened and how the novel had taken this weird turn. I still don't get it. At that point, I plodded through to the end, greatly disappointed (when I wasn't shaking my head or snorting).
I can't strongly recommend this one. So much emotional investment building up to an unbelievable ending that was totally out of sync with the rest of the novel.
If I read (or listen to) anything else by Bowles, it will be because of his style--not his nearly-nonexistent agility with plot or character.
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