I can't get enough of W. Somerset Maugham. Both his novels and his short stories are beautifully crafted and expressed. Maugham's thought process and prose seem effortless but his insight is keen. Charlton Griffin is an excellent narrator, matching the author's archly ironic tone and the tone of the "snobs" he portrays.
I liked The Storyteller primarily for the stories that wrap around the central story of a Polish Jewish Ghetto and the horrors of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The relationships formed by the main characters (Sage and her sisters and her grandmother; Josef Weber and his brother; Sage's married lover, Adam; and Sage's new lover, Leo) are more interesting to me than the details of the grandmother's deportation to Auschwitz and her life there. The details of the Auschwitz segment are well told by Jodi Picoult but those facts have been told in many other novels, including some fairly recent best-sellers, such as, Chris Bohjalian's novel Skeletons at the Feast and Jenna Blum's novel Those Who Save Us.
The unique appeal of The Storyteller lies in the examination of guilt and forgiveness, lies and truth, ugliness and beauty. Sage, who is physically scarred because of an accident, is the granddaughter of a woman scarred by the concentration camp. Sage also becomes the friend of a very old man, who is mourning the death of his wife but also seeking death and forgiveness for his actions 70 years earlier. How Sage deals with this old man's guilt and need for forgiveness is deeply moving and human. Her feelings and actions are ambivalent, flawed, and understandable. The author's ability to portray Sage's internal conflict lifts this novel to the high level of acclaim that it has attracted.
I thoroughly enjoyed the audiobook edition of Dan Brown's new novel Inferno. I found it a better addition to the Robert Langdon series than the fairly recent The Lost Symbol because the foreign settings here are more exotic and interesting than the Washington, DC setting of The Lost Symbol, and the background story of unchecked population growth in Inferno has more meat. Also, the parallel story of Dante's Inferno is interesting, literate, and exotic.
The book is not just a disguised travelogue of Florence, Venice, and Istanbul. The author's knowledge of classical art, artists, architecture, and history is first-rate, but Brown's skill and craft meld this material into an engrossing story, with many twists of plot, interesting characters, and at least one mad man/mad scientist. The novel is entertaining and an easy read, or listen, but the story of the population explosion and its implications for the near future is very relevant, or should be very relevant to all thinking people. Children born today, or their children, may well witness the extinction of human kind -- by our overwhelming the earth's resources or by our replacement by "trans-humans," the next step in evolution.
I do agree that the plot has some turns that seem not completely logical -- why does a man intent on hiding a secret leave many tantalizing clues to uncovering the truth? He wants the credit, no doubt, but he imperils his intention to carry out an action that is at the heart of the secret, or so it seems. The resolution of this conflict is central to the book and is not revealed until the very end of the story. For those of you who have not finished Inferno, enjoy!
I have now read three of Susanna Kearsley's novels. Her new offering, The Firebird is something of a sequel to The Winter Sea, which I read in January of this year. I have not rated The Firebird as highly, however, because I found the story relies too heavily on the psychic ability of two characters and their ability to see the past, of 300+ years ago, with so much clarity. Also, the past that these characters relate is not as significant as the time period explored in The Winter Sea (the Scottish Rebellion of 1708). The action of The Firebird takes place AFTER James is defeated in his one attempt to land on Scottish soil and is forced to return to France. Most of the action then takes place in Flanders and in St. Petersburg, Russia, among supporters of James who fled Scotland to regroup and attract new military assistance.
I did not dislike this novel and, in fact, I found the language quite beautiful, more refined, and more poetic than the earlier novels. Also, the setting in St. Petersburg at the time of Peter the Great and his wife, Catherine, is quite well handled. The romantic themes are too prominent in this novel, however, and overshadow the history, which is my prime interest in reading this author's work.
I was marginally familiar with Anne Morrow Lindberg, the subject of The Aviator's Wife, and more familiar with Melanie Benjamin, the author of the novel -- from reading Alice I Have Been, the story of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the title character in Alice in Wonderland. I also know as much as any schoolboy of the 1940's and 1950's about Anne Morrow's famous husband, Charles Lindberg. Since this new novel, has been well received, I thought it worth the cost of admission to buy a copy from Audible for my enjoyment.
I did find the book a little slow-paced, in the beginning, even through the pre-war years, when Charles Lindberg put himself on the pacifist side of the debate raging in America -- in the end, being denounced as a Nazi sympathizer and being denied the reinstatement of his officer's commission. That Charles Lindberg reestablished his place in America's pantheon of heroes was unknown to me. I was quite impressed with his wartime work, in a civilian capacity, with Ford Motors and with the U.S. Army Air Force.
This book is not so much about Charles Lindberg the hero, however, as it is about Anne Morrow Lindberg and her quiet support and love for her husband in spite of his austere, cold personality. The death of the Lindberg's first child, Charles Jr. did much to destroy Charles Lindberg's personal life. His failure to save his child from the kidnappers was a personal defeat and humiliation that he never forgot, although he never discussed it, even with Anne. After fathering five more children with Anne, he virtually abandoned her when she was unable to bear more children, visiting their home in Connecticut only a few times per year and being away for months at a time. Instead, the novel reveals the fact that Charles fathered seven other children, with three other women, in Germany, between the 1950's and his death in 1974.
The Aviator's Wife may appeal more to women readers than to male readers. I did find the tone of the novel (which I listened to in audio format) fairly brittle. But I do recognize the growth of Anne Morrow's character during the book and her strength in Charles' declining years and his final illness. Her behavior at Charles' deathbed in 1974 is emotional dynamite. The book is very well organized around that deathbed scene, moving back and forth between 1974 and various significant times in the past -- the real aviation partnership between Anne and Charles during the 1920's, the kidnapping of Charles Jr. in 1932, the pre-war visits to Germany and Charles' link with Nazi Germany, the war years Anne and the family spent in Detroit while Charles joined the American air forces in the Pacific, and Charles' more and more rare visits home to his wife and children. The organization of the segments makes Anne's analysis of her marriage to Charles very believable and well worth reading.
Although I do not usually read collections of short stories, I have read two of the author's novels, Homecoming and The Reader, and I did not want to miss any new fiction from Bernhard Schlink. Each of the selections in Summer Lies is really a novella, rather than a "short" story. A couple of the early selections seem somewhat incomplete or unresolved, as if they were meant to be only portraits of a particular character and his shallow relationship with his wife or lover. The later selections are much more satisfying, exploring relationships that are much more complex and moving. I particularly like the last three selections, all which deal with much older characters, both men and women, who are confronting end-of-life emotions, while trying to define who they are, how they have lived, the life-altering decisions they made, and their relationships with parents, spouses, children, and grandchildren. The last two selections are particularly intense: a man trying to reconcile with his 82-year old father, with whom he shares only one passion, the love of the music of Bach; and the story of a woman living in an assisted-living facility who has fallen out of love with her children and grandchildren, but leaves on a trip, accompanied by a grown granddaughter, to revisit the town in which she attended university, more than fifty years earlier. This relatively short audiobook (about 8 hours long)is well worth the reading just for the very best of these selections. The rest is intro and bonus!
I read Winter Journal by Paul Auster because I have read two of the author’s recent novels, Sunset Park and Invisible. In fact, I listened to the audiobook version of Winter Journal because it is read by the author. I liked the writing style of Auster’s memoir but found the actual content somewhat guarded, lacking intimacy, with biographical information substituted for comments about his writing. Like many other authors, Auster seems to conceal his literary opinion so that his readers will make sense of his novels based solely on the published text. Auster’s thoughts about life, aging, and death are similar to my own, which is not too surprising since he and I are close to the same age. What Auster says has been said just as well or better by others, who are willing to explore deeper questions about the meaning of life, religious faith or lack thereof, and strategies to remain relevant and “loveable” in our old age.
I was puzzled by the rambling style of the memoir. Part is chronological, giving us comments about every home Auster ever lived in, his own childhood memories, his experiences in France and his general dislike of the Parisians, his first marriage (but not the reasons for its breakup), and his second marriage, which has continued for thirty years. Parts of the memoir jump back to the author’s relationship with his mother and his lack of a relationship with his father. Auster’s recurring “panic attacks”, dating from his early twenties to the present, are quite revealing, and seem related to his insecurity during his childhood, after the divorce of his own parents. His own divorce, on the other hand, coincides chronologically and psychologically with the rebirth of his own creativity. He learns to hear the music within himself and to put words to that music. His description of an experimental ballet, without music, that he saw performed at this time identifies the incident as the spark of his rebirth. Shortly thereafter, with the help of his estranged wife, he overcame the emotional turmoil attending the death of his father. Not too much later, he met the woman who became his second wife, and entered a relationship he finds as loving today as thirty years ago.
Although authors who publish memoirs late in life sometimes announce or anticipate their own retirement, Paul Auster does not seem to have retirement in mind in Winter Journal. I hope to see new works of fiction from the author for years to come, and hope to be here to read them
Audible recently made a free audiobook version of this work available to its members. I love "free" and was interested in the character of Black Hawk, so I was pleased to listen to this brief 3-1/2 hour work. Black Hawk lived from the late 1790s to the mid 1830s. He wrote his autobiography about 1833 and included the relocation of his Sac and Fox tribes from an area near Montreal to an area near Rock Island on the Mississippi. The story narrates the tribe's encounters with the French, the English, the Spanish, and, finally, the Americans. In 1804, the Americans swindled the tribe out of its lands east of the Mississippi. The treaty of 1804 was later used to forcibly relocate the tribe west of the river. Many of the tribe were killed when Black Hawk defended his lands. Ironically, Black Hawk was then treated to a grand tour that included visits to Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Albany. On this tour he was treated like a great celebrity, although he and his tribe had been treated with extreme cruelty and indifference in his home territory by the agents of the U.S. government and the settlers.
Much of the abuse of the Indians by the U.S. is not news to us, but to hear the details of the abuse in the words of an Indian of that time period is quite moving. Also interesting is Black Hawk's description of the Mississippi and the Wisconsin Rivers in the early 1800s, the various tribes who inhabited the area, and the nobility of the lifestyle of the American Indian.
Posted to Goodreads on 3/19/12:
This book was written in 1983 but released again in 2008 as an audiobook, which I picked up from Audible at a very good price. I liked the fantasy, magical sequences of the story and the portrait of New York City from the late 1800s to the year 2000 (the future, as of 1983). The story was slow to get going, although the "Gangs of New York" style of the beginning held my interest. Once some of the main characters really take the stage (Peter Lake and Beverly Penn), the pace picks up. On the whole, however, some of the fantasy borders on the juvenile, similar to the movie Polar Express, and some of the history seems incorrect. Also, when the author tries to imagine New York of the future and a cataclysmic event that could destroy the city, he does not reach his goal. That a character tries to build a bridge to see the face of God is difficult to consider seriously.
The book is really too long, but if you have the time, you may like the early approach to magical reality. The book has some similarities with Chronic City.
Novels based on religious events or religious figures are inherently risky. Many modern novelists are not passionate believers or active participants in their religion and their attitude is shared by most of the readers who follow them. Another large group of readers, however, are ardent believers and practitioners and react vociferously to fictional accounts of events and the actions of religious figures. An author risks boring his or her own readership with a highly orthodox version of the events or enraging a large group of other readers who were attracted to this new work because of the religious topic. The reaction of certain Christian church leaders to two books by Anne Rice, who is best known for her vampire novels, that recount the boyhood and early adult life of Jesus Christ, are cases in point. I have not read Anne Rice???s vampire novels but I did read Christ the Lord and The Road to Cana, because I liked one of her early novels, The Eve of All Saints. I liked the religious novels, but some new readers did not like the author???s fictionalization of the stories; and, as a result, Anne Rice has returned to writing for her established vampire audience.
I was afraid that Alice Hoffman???s book, The Dovekeepers, would be either too religious or too involved with the Jewish State to be of interest. Because I have read and enjoyed 11 of Alice???s other books, however, I jumped in. I thoroughly enjoyed the new book, which uses the events at Masada in 70 ??? 73 CE primarily as a backdrop for the exploration of several women who were trapped there when the Romans overran the fortress. I found the stories interesting, well-immersed in the history of Israel, Jerusalem, Rome, and Alexandria; and I found the characters strong and passionate, although more modern in their thinking that most women of 70 CE. The zealots defending Masada are not all good men, acting only for the good of Israel. The women are not all holy, pure, devoted, or faithful. What I found engaging about the book, however, caused Sarah Fay, the reviewer for the New York Times, to pan the book in very uncertain terms. Although she never said so, Ms. Fay seems to believe that Alice Hoffman is unworthy to use the Masada story and to focus on the women involved rather than the religious or national significance of the Masada story. Her objections are framed in literary terms but have a decidedly personal tone, which I was amazed to see applied to a widely-followed and admired author by a reviewer for the New York Times.
I believe that sales of the novel and the weight of other reviews will demonstrate the error of the Sarah Fay review.
A straight-forward, brief, and candid account of Ms. Patchett's own life, divorce, and second marriage. Both touching and amusing. A nice gift from the author and Audible for the holiday season.
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