Little Bee is a story both sad and hopeful, horrific and funny. It's told in the voices of two women: Little Bee, a 16-year old from Nigeria who, after two years, finds herself "unofficially" discharged from an immigration detention center in southern England; and Sarah O'Rourke, magazine editor, mother, reporter's wife. Among Little Bee's few belongings are Andrew O'Rourke's driver's license and business card. Not knowing anyone in the UK, she decides to head for the address on the driver's license. And thus begins a journey for both women.
If you've seen Little Bee in print, you know that the dust jacket warns that there are many surprises to come, that the publisher won't spoil them by telling you much, and that you shouldn't tell anyone else either. I didn't see what all the secrecy was about, beyond a marketing ploy. The book is no more "surprising" than many others. Still, Cleave has a wonderfully lyrical style, especially in the character of Little Bee.
As to the reader, the unvarying cheerfulness apparently intended to represent Little Bee's accent did get a bit monotonous and annoying at times. While that lilting African accent is charming, I doubt that Africans use exactly the same tone and pacing for every emotion they verbally express. Still, overall, this was an engaging book with some important messages.
'My Life in Pieces' is not your typical autobiography. It's a compilation of "pieces" written by the actor Simon Callow for various newspapers, books, programs, memorials, etc. Most of them, of course, revolve around Callow's work in the theatre and on film. If his name isn't familiar to you, his face probably will be, from movies if not the stage: he played the Rev. Mr. Beebe in 'A Room with a View,' Schikaneder/Papageno in 'Amadeus,' and Gareth, the gay man who dies of a heart attack at one of the receptions in 'Four Weddings and a Funeral.' He's also well-known for his one-man show on Charles Dickens, which was televised in the UK and is available on DVD here in the US. Callow presents insightful essays on many of the great actors of the twentieth century, most of whom he has acted with, including Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Alec Guinness, Paul Scofield, Orson Welles, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Redgrave, Ian McKellan, and more. In addition, he writes about several directors and playwrights, classic 'schools' and 'methods' of acting, and his own views on the status of acting on today's stage.
Callow is a wonderful writer and a great storyteller. He can be funny, charming, reverent, and insightful--sometimes in the same piece. The stories he tells of working in the theatre are delightful, but they also give one an appreciation for the true art of acting. I listened to this book on audio, and with Callow himself as reader, it was a wonderful experience. I've always thought he was a fine, underrated character actor, and my admiration of his work has grown after reading/listening to these 'pieces.'
Recommended for anyone interested theatre arts.
If she was alive today, I'd be writing to thank Muriel Spark for adding a useful phrase to my repertoire: pisseur de copie. It's a phrase that gets Mrs. Hawkins (later known as Nancy) into a good deal of trouble, but she never takes it back. Mrs. Hawkins, a large-boned and hefty 28-year-old war widow, works in the world of publishing, and she lives in a boarding house full of eccentric characters, including a Polish seamstress, a pampered daddy's girl, a clever lower class medical student, and others. It's her connection to Hector Bartlett, the pisseur de copie, that shapes the novel. Mrs. Hawkins takes an immediate dislike to the pretentious would-be author, who tries repeatedly to use his 'friendship' with popular novelist Emma Loy as an entry ticket. (Nancy suspects a sexual liaison, but Emma's revelation that Hector can quote from all of her novels--wrongly--suggests something a bit more egotistical.) When tragedy strikes the boarding house community, Mrs. Hawkins launches an investigation of her own.
'A Far Cry from Kensington' is a delightful trek into the world of publishing, ca. 1950s, and a wonderfully droll study of character. I've read only one other novel by Spark, but I'll definitely be seeking out more.
McLaverty's novel of "the troubles" in Northern Ireland, first published in 1983, has become a classic. Young Cal McCluskey is haunted by the role he played in the murder of a policeman yet struggles to detach from the IRA. Matters get worse when Cal falls for the local librarian who, he later learns, is the policeman's widow. As their romance heats up, he is saddened by the knowledge that their relationship is doomed: both of them have stated their belief in 100% honesty between partners, but Cal knows that 100% honesty will destroy them.
'Cal' depicts the horrors of the continuing conflict betwen Catholics and Protestants: beatings, fire-bombings, land minds, shattered families and shattered psyches. Overall, a finely written and very moving novel. David Threlfall is a very reader.
Hundreds of novels have been written about Elizabeth I, so one wonders, what could be written about her life that hasn't been covered before? Margaret George takes as her subject a less familiar period of Elizabeth's life, the last 15 years or so, from the approach of the Spanish Armada to her death in 1603. It's a daring decision, since what we generally think of as the most exciting events in her reign--her imprisonment by her half-sister Mary, her dalliance Thomas Seymour, her ascendance to the throne, the string of foreign suitors and her 'affair' with Robert Dudley, the arrest of her cousin Mary of Scotland, etc.--have already occurred. So what could there be in the life of an aging queen that is worthy of another massive tome?
Plenty--especially if you are a reader who is more interested in characters than action. And George starts us off with plenty of action as the English troops prepare to meet the Armada. We're introduced to some of the major players of the period: Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the leader of Elizabeth's troops; her spymaster Frances Walsingham (incongruously clad in armor); Sir Walter Raleigh; Secretary Burleigh; Leicester's stepson, the Earl of Essex;--the list goes on.
But characters drive this novel. By focusing on an aging queen with aging advisors who are often in conflict with the younger members of the council, George finds a reason to explore relationships, the changes wrought by maturity and experience, and a growing generation gap that affects both court and country. The effect is enhanced by dividing the novel between two narrators, Elizabeth and her cousin Lettice Knollys. The ten years younger, more beautiful, and thrice-married Lettice is the granddaughter of Mary Boleyn, sister of the queen's doomed mother. A third Boleyn cousin, Catherine Knollys, enters the picture as one of Elizabeth's foremost ladies in waiting. It is Catherine who observes near the end of the book that together they represent the three paths of womanhood: one a life-long virgin, one thrice widowed, and one happily married to the same man since her youth.
While Elizabeth and Lettice would seem to be polar opposites (and Lettice had incurred the queen's lifelong enmity for seducing away and marrying Leicester), George's narrative subtly reveals the similarities between them as well. For one thing, both have learned the value of patience; for another, both reflect on the mistakes and lessons of the past and on the process of aging. Whatever else she may be, Lettice is also a devoted mother; and George depicts Elizabeth as a mother much devoted to her "children," the people of England, as well as to her many godchildren. In the case of Elizabeth, George attempts to dig below the myths and give us a closer look at the woman behind the face paint and the crown. The double narratives remind us of how difficult it was to be a woman in those days, especially for a woman who had to remind the world that she was a prince as well.
Now, don't get the impression that this book is all thought and no action. After all, we are talking about a period that encompassed the invasion of the Armada and the continued threat from Spain, the Lopez 'plot,' the Irish wars, the Essex rebellion, the problem of the succession, and more. And for good measure, George imagines a dalliance between Lettice and that upstart playwright William Shakespeare. (Both women comment on his work and ponder its relevance--and John Donne makes two appearances as well.) In short, George gives us a brimming picture of life, both public and private, in late Elizabethan England.
Initially, I was totally captivated by this story of Jean Padgett, a young English woman working in Malaya who became a Japanese prisoner of war. The hardships that the women and children endured during their trek to one nonexistent prison camp after another and the alternating kindness and inhumanity of their captors kept me reading (well, listening; this was an audiobook) at a rapid pace. Under such an unlikely circumstances, one wouldn't expect to fall in love, but we do sense that it is happening to Jean when she means a resourceful Australian named Joe Harmon. But the war intervenes . . .
The novel opens with the narrator, a solicitor, tracking down Jean to tell her that she has just come into an inheritance, and it is to Noah that Jean tells her story. After hearing all she endured, he could hardly be more surprised when Jean tells him her plans for the money: to return to Malaya.
I won't spoil the book by telling what happens next, but there are quite a few surprises in store. I have to admit that the last third of the novel--the part that reflects the title--was somewhat less interesting to me. Still, this is one of those books whose title was familiar but about which I knew nothing, and overall, it was worthwhile.
This is one of those books that really hooked me in at first but fell off a bit towards the end. It's 1922, and Cora Carlisle, a respectable Wichita wife in her late thirties, is hired to accompany 15-year old Louise Brooks to New York City. Louise, who became a silent film star a few years later, had been accepted by the exclusive dance school run by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. Despite their age difference, it quickly becomes clear that it's Cora, not Louise, who is the more naive. Wherever they go, the beautiful Louise attracts male attention--and seems to know just what to do with it.
The story is more that of Cora than of Louise. The main reason that she wants to go to New York is to find out about her birth parents. She vaguely remembers a dark-haired woman holding her and singing in a foreign language, but her earliest clear memories are of the Catholic orphanage where she was raised to about age seven. Cora was one of thousands of orphaned children who were put on trains and shipped to potential parents in the plains states. Fortunately, her adoptive parents were loving and kind, but as she grew, Cora's life was not untouched by tragedy. In a day when adoption records were sealed, Cora attempts to find out who where she came from, who she really is.
The confrontations between Cora and Louise are exactly what one would expect, Cora constantly reminding her charge that she mustn't allow herself to be "compromised," Louise scoffing at Cora's old-fashioned Christian morality. This leads to a lot of self-examination on the chaperone's part, including the revelation of family secrets. But it isn't long before Louise is invited to join the Denis-Shawn company, and Cora heads back to Wichita--but not exactly to the same life.
The last quarter of the novel rushes through 50+ years of Cora's life, with occasional mentions and sightings of Louise. Overall, it seems rushed, and rather formulaic, all the 'surprises' too anticipated: hence the 3.5 rating. The rush is even more pronounced because the section on Louise seems rather dragged out. Think about the balance: 3/4 of the book focused on a few months in 1922 (plus Cora's memories), 1/3 covering the next 50+ years.
Overall, it's not a bad read, just slightly disappointing in the end. One thing I did get out of it was a renewed interest in Louise Brooks, one of the most distinctively stunning and most controversial actresses of the silent film era.
As its title suggests, this book works within the frame of a self help or "how to" book. Each chapter is headed with a rule (e.g., "Don't Fall in Love"), and the narrator uses imperatives, addressed to "you," as is typical of the genre. One of the effects of addressing the reader in this manner is to deliberately distance the speaker from the subject of his story, but this is clearly a very personal story of a man rising from abject poverty to wealth and of a woman (known only as "the pretty girl" well into her fifties) whose life intersects with his. So how does one become filthy rich in rising Asia? Through one form of corruption or another: hustling, stealing, prostituting, threatening, payback, demeaning, disloyalty, submission to those even more corrupt than oneself, etc. It's a life shadowed by sadness and anxiety, even when one's efforts succeed. Hamid gives us keen insights into life in "rising Asia" (no exact location or even a country is ever named), a view that contrasts with recent western paranoia about those nations supposedly poised to take over the world's economy. It's a story about the lengths to which desperation drives human beings in an increasingly materialistic world, and about the discovery, in the end, of what is most important to our lives.
'Astray' is a fascinating and diverse collection of fourteen short stories/vignettes loosely based on snippets from letters, newspaper articles, footnotes, and other historical documents. Donoghue has taken these small pieces and used both her research and her imagination to flesh them out into complete characters and stories. They range across centuries (from the 17th to the 20th) and are set in various places (London, Texas, Ontario, Massachusetts, and more), and the main characters come from all walks of life: a young Hessian soldier in the Revolutionary war, an elephant keeper, two Gold Rush prospectors, a pair of female sculptors, a runaway slave, a prostitute, a young widowed mother unable to support her child--to name but a few. What they all have in common is that each has in some way taken a life journey that has gone astray, whether due to accident, ambition, corruption, madness, or the pinch of necessity. Each story is followed by a brief explanation of the document that inspired it and what Donoghue learned about the real-life characters' fates. I found two of the stories that were based on letters particularly moving. "Counting Down the Days" tells of a young Irish man who emigrated to Canada, leaving his wife and baby behind; now, at last, she is sailing to join him. In "The Gift," an impoverished young widow reluctantly gives her baby daughter into the care of a social services agency; they place her in a foster home and eventually facilitate her adoption. The story consists of letters written by the birth mother, who attempts to retrieve her lost daughter, and by her adoptive father.
'Astray' bears some similarities to Donoghue's earlier collection, 'The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits,' but her skills as a writer have been finely tuned since 2002. While not all of the stories are equally strong, there is something admirable in each, and something here for everyone. Highly recommended.
McEwan's latest novel initially had me captivated, but something--mainly, my interest--got a little lost along the way. Fiona Maye, a British judge who decides cases involving child welfare, has just reached a number of difficult and controversial decisions. One concerned the custody of two young girls whose parents belong to a strict Jewish sect. Unable to bear more children, the mother enrolled in open university classes and began to pursue a career, becoming more "worldly" in the process, much to the dismay of her husband. The second was the case of conjoined twins, one of whom could survive if they were separated; if not, both were doomed to die. The hospital asked the court to intervene because the parents believed that whatever happened was God's will. Now, sitting on her desk, is yet another difficult case. Adam Henry, just three months shy of his majority (18), suffers from leukemia, but he and his parents, who are Jehovah's Witnesses, reject the blood transfusions that could save his life. In making her decision, Fiona tries to keep focused strictly on the letter of the law, the sanctity of individual faith, and the welfare of the child in question. However, her ability to keep her professional life separate from her personal life quavers when she meets Adam, a sensitive, self-assured, intelligent young man.
For in the midst of all this, Fiona's marriage has begun to fall apart. Her husband announces that, with her permission, he would like to have an affair while he is still capable, complaining that she has no interest in sex and is just no fun anymore. He also feels that she has become closed off and is keeping things to herself that he wishes she would share. Fiona begins to contemplate the past: what she has given up for the sake of her career, including having children of her own.
In some ways, I would have been happier had the novel ended with Fiona's decision, or perhaps with Adam's letter in response to it. But, as is usual for McEwan, things take a detour that is a bit off kilter. Of course, this leads to more self-analysis on Fiona's part--another hallmark of McEwan's work. In this regard, 'The Children Act' is somewhat reminiscent of another brief novel, On Chesil Beach.
All in all, this was an engaging read up to the rather muddled, unsatisfactory conclusion. Definitely worth reading, but not among McEwan's best. If you haven't read 'Atonement' or 'On Chesil Beach', pick those up first.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect of this book. The cover intrigued me, it was set in Scotland, and the present day main character is a writer of historical fiction, so I thought I'd give it a try. In the end, it was just OK--a bit too heavy on the romance for my taste. The novel centers around a young, successful writer who has gone to Scotland to do research for a new book that will be based on the life on one of her ancestors. Set in the 18th century and focused on the efforts to bring the Stuarts back to the throne of England, the novel shaped some of the more interesting chapters. The modern-day story involves two handsome Scottish brothers who both are attracted to Carrie, the writer. This I could definitely have done without, and I thought the concept of Carrie channeling the memories of her ancestor was also a bit of a stretch.
I doubt that I will be looking for more novels by this author.
The reader wasn't bad, although she laid it on pretty thick when speaking in the voice of Scottish men.
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