Saturday, January 30, 2010


Authors often use children at different ages to narrate a novel. It is sometimes easily apparent that the child narrator is not that reliable, for different reasons. In “Mathilda Savitch”, Victor Ladato, a well known poet and playwright, uses the voice of thirteen year old Mathilda Savitch as the narrator. Victor Ladato’s first novel is a gripping story about a family’s overwhelming grief surrounding the death of Mathilda’s older sister, Helene. Mathilda is a child who is totally lost. She adored her older sister but fought with her the last morning she saw her. Mathilda’s mother is in a fog of grief and guilt, drinking her way to oblivion. Mathilda’s father is trying to keep it all together. Mathilda thinks “if she is bad, really bad they will notice her”. When that doesn’t work Mathilda decides she will find out for herself how and why her sister died.

Here the author skillfully lets the reader know that Mathilda is an unreliable narrator. Everyone else seems to know how and why Helene died, but Mathilda is in denial. In the hands of Victor Ladato, Mathilda’s cluelessness can be laugh out loud funny. When Mathilda slips into a church she meets a nun who suggests that Mathilda could say the words of a prayer to comfort her. Mathilda thinks to herself, “She was a lunatic, I decided. You almost have to be in her profession.”

The story moves quickly as Mathilda follows Helene’s footsteps and emails to retrace her last day. The writing is very good. Using Mathilda’s skewed view of the world, after Helene’s death, and beautiful imagery, Ladato brings the reader to a point of total empathy with Mathilda. There are subplots involving friends, school, boys and terrorists but they all add up to an adolescent girl’s sad life, one that she is trying desperately to make sane.

I enjoyed Mathilda Savitch, the novel and the voice. I think it is definitely a feat when a man can make a young girl’s life, her angst, and her heartbreak so real to a reader.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Fact and Fiction

Do novelists sometimes set the bar high for themselves, just to prove that they can rise to the challenge? I think Barbara Kingsolver may have done that with her latest novel The Lacuna. In addition to the normal difficulties involved in crafting a successful novel, she adds two more hurdles.

The first is that she sets her main character, Harrison William Shepherd, alongside historical figures, and larger than life ones at that. Shepherd, son of an American bureaucrat father and a tempestuous Mexican mother, winds up as a cook in the household of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and eventually serves as a secretary to their house guest, exiled revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Kingsolver does an excellent job of seamlessly weaving her fictional character into this real life story. The vivid personalities of the two artists seem authentic, and the description of their volatile relationship is both humorous and poignant.

The second hurdle is the form of the narrative, a long series of Shepherd's journals. Because he always feels himself to be an outsider, both because of his mixed heritage and his closeted homosexuality. Shepherd makes an excellent 'fly on the wall' observer of the complicated lives of the colorful Mexican household. But later in the book, when he returns to the United States and becomes a successful novelist, the passivity that made him a great diarist makes him not quite so interesting when he becomes the central actor in his journal. Luckily he gets an assist from his plucky secretary Violet Brown, who provides editorial notes, and by the inclusion of correspondence, newspaper clippings and even the transcript of a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing, which detail how Shepherd's Mexican past and the populist slant in his novels, even though they are set in the time of the Aztecs, make him an easy target in the Red Scare era.

There were times late in the book where I was a little too aware that Kingsolver was preaching, stacking every card in the deck against Shepherd in order to make her political point. But nonetheless I ended up with great admiration for this book, a rich, complicated, vivid story told with amazing skill.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Hibakusha are the surviving victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (including those not yet born but carried by pregnant women who survived the bombings). Hiroko Tanaka, the main character in Kamila Shamsie's novel Burnt Shadows is one such survivor. She lost her father and her German fiance in Nagasaki. When she has recovered from her own injuries and the war has ended, she sets out to find her fiance's half sister, Elizabeth, who is living in Delhi, married to James, an Englishman. Hiroko and Elizabeth become close friends. As the novel follows their relationship over the ensuing decades, we learn more about their spouses, children and even a grandchild. The two families become linked in evermore intricate and challenging ways. A pivotal part of the story involves the CIA. It is difficult for me to know how realistic and accurate that part of the story is.

The settings in the novel are many. In addition to Japan and India, the events take the reader to Istanbul, the newly established Pakistan, New York in the aftermath of 9/11 and Afghanistan. The author herself was born in Pakistan.

Shamsia has managed to link the bombing at Nagasaki with the aftermath of 9/11 in a very powerful way. In addition to being a good story, this novel raises some fundamental questions that we need to answer as we continue to face war and the nuclear threat. I think it is telling that I am still asking myself if the events of the last few chapters could have been otherwise. What would I have done in those same circumstances?

Watch a brief interview with Kamila Shamsie here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Classics on TV

It's called Masterpiece Classic for a good reason. In the next few weeks my local public television station KQED will be broadcasting a series of productions of several of our Jane Austen favorites: Emma starting Jan 24; Northanger Abbey on Feb 14; and Persuasion on Feb 21. If you go to the website you can enter your email address to receive a reminder the day before each show. That's probably old news to many but it was new to me. The less I have to remember, the better. Public television stations in other areas may have similar schedules.

Try not to watch the show until you have read the book!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Ships of Life

I have only recently become a fan of short stories because they satisfy a need when I am too distracted by life to concentrate on, or finish, a full length novel. And, I have noticed that collections of short stories are appearing more and more on lists of best books and favorite books for the year. One of the best and most prolific contemporary short story writers is the Canadian writer, Alice Munroe. I have just finished a selection of short stories that she published in 2001, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories”. These are nine stories about people who are connected to each other but not always because they choose to be. The stories are mainly about women in small provincial towns in Canada in the 1960’s. Women who found life fleeing around them without the predictability they had counted on.

In the title story the author tells us about two petty teenage girls who attempt to play a cruel joke on a housekeeper approaching spinsterhood. But the joke is on the teenagers and they can’t understand how it happened. In “Family Furnishings" a young girl escapes her family to attend college in a city. There she encounters a family relative who reveals a secret that shocks the young woman and changes her history. The last story of the collection,“The Bear Came Over The Mountain”, is about a philandering husband who, in the end, selflessly pays his wife back for all his indiscretions. This story has become a popular novella and a motion picture entitled, “Away From Her”.

Alice Munroe has that rare ability to depict characters with many flaws who in a few pages become real and sympathetic. She tells stories that move in time and place and give the reader a true sense of what a character is thinking and why.

Reading a short story by Alice Monroe is as intriguing and satisfying as reading a novel. Her character portrayals and writing never falters. It is amazing to think that someone can consistently produce such great stories. Her latest collection entitled, “Too Much Happiness”, was published in 2009.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Short and Bittersweet

What do I want from a short story? I like to discover a character who, even the brief space of the story, captures and holds my attention. Most of the eleven stories in Maile Meloy's Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It more than satisfy that requirement.

Her characters are flawed, conflicted, not always likable but utterly believable. Echoing the title, a character in “The Children”, trying to decide whether to leave his wife, says bluntly “What kind of fool wanted it only one way?”. And in “Travis, B.”, when a young ranch hand realizes he is out of his depth in pursuing a romance with a young lawyer, he muses that he “had wanted practice, with girls, and now he had gotten it, but he wished it had felt more like practice”.

Several stories have twists at the end, but they never feel gimmicky or manipulative. In nearly all of them a character is pulled in opposing directions, and each is resolved (or not resolved) in a fresh way. Meloy's style is crisp and understated, and in several stories she uses the stark and powerful landscape of Montana as a backdrop.

Sometimes I'm not ready to start reading a new novel, or maybe I want a quick break from the one I'm reading, and I'm looking for a satisfying short story that I can gulp down whole. For me, Meloy's stories rank near Alice Munro's for satisfying that thirst.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

An Old Friend

I have four volumes of W. Somerset Maugham's short stories that at one point I read through enthusiastically. In our reading group we read his Of Human Bondage and Cakes and Ale. So when I recently picked up The Moon and Sixpence it seemed more like visitng with an old friend. It wasn't until I was almost at the end of the book that I realized that it might be related to the life of Paul Gaughin - and it is. Although in this fictionalized biography the artist Charles Strickland is English instead of French.

What a hateful character Strickland is. Is it really necessary for an artist in pursuit of his vision of Beauty to be so thoroughly despising and abusive of his fellow humans? This is a perfect example of a book for which you can dislike the main character but like the book. What I really like about the book is the language. If you have ever been to Tahiti you really should read chapter 45 of this book. It will transport you there in an instant.

My only problem is that the narrator (speaking for Maugham?) seems to have a very low opinion of women. Not just the women in this story but the comments on the nature of women in general are far from flattering. Nevertheless...

Apparently Mario Vargas Llosa has also written a fictionalized account of the life of Gaughin: The Way to Paradise. It would be interesting to compare the two. No doubt the truth about Gaughin lies somewhere else still.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Radetsky March

The Radetzky March, Opus 288 is an exuberant march written by Johann Strauss Sr. in 1848. If you think you've never heard it, you're probably wrong – listen to this rendition and I bet you'll recognize it. Note also that the audience automatically begins to clap in unison – it's a tradition that dates back to the march's origins when Austrian soldiers spontaneously clapped and stomped when it was played (thank you, Wikipedia).

Joseph Roth wrote The Radetzky March in 1932, as the fascist movement was gaining strength in Europe. His novel looks backward somewhat nostalgically at the decline of the Hapsburg Empire and the parallel decline of the von Trotta family. The entire story hinges on a single incident in 1859, when the young Slovenian infantry lieutenant Joseph Trotta saves the life of the equally young Kaiser Franz Josef of Austria at the Battle of Solferino in Italy. His heroism is rewarded with a barony and a promotion; he becomes Captain Joseph Trotta von Sipolje. 

Now a member of the aristocracy, the captain is distanced from his peasant father (“his father was separated from him by a heavy mountain of military ranks”). Embittered by the misrepresentation of his heroic act in a patriotic children's book, he directs his son Franz away from a military career into a civil service position as a district captain. But Franz, seduced by the strains of the Radetzky March and the legend of his war hero father, sends his son Carl Joseph to a lieutenant's life in a prestigious cavalry regiment. 

All this happens in the first fifty pages. The remainder of the book traces the paths of Franz, Carl Joseph, the emperor and the empire itself. The individual incidents in Carl Joseph's life seem mundane in themselves, and yet a sense of foreboding and inevitability hangs over his story. Even the minor characters, who seem three dimensional in their ordinariness, each add a layer to sense of disintegration that Roth builds. The respect and admiration that the father feels for the aging emperor, wonderfully portrayed as a doddering but sympathetic old man, is not shared by the son, who begins to see only vacant eyes in the emperor's portraits. The morale and cohesiveness of the army itself seems to be disintegrating in parallel to Carl Joseph. Even as the soldiers anticipate the upcoming war they sense their doom. 

Lieutenant Trotta's betrayal of the kindly Jewish Doctor Demant haunts him as his military career falters. Did Roth foresee his own and Austria's future in this incident? Less than a year after his book was published, Joseph Roth fled Germany for Paris, and his works were burnt by the Nazis. If you had known that in advance, would it have changed the way you experienced this book? What is Roth saying about fathers and sons? There are so many, including a number of father figures. In a book almost devoid of female characters, what role do you think the episode with Frau Slama played?

As a footnote, I'd be really interested to learn which translation you read. Mine was by Joachim Neugroschel, and I've seen references to ones by Michael Hofmann and Geoffrey Dunlop. In general it was a clear but formal style with a few odd exceptions. In Chapter 19, in the scene where news of the assassination in Sarajevo is delivered to the regiment party (wasn't that a great scene, with the storm rumbling in the distance and the military bands playing?), there's this description of the footman: “Although a sensible and enlightened middle-aged man, he suddenly got the creeps in this vestibule”. Got the creeps? I'd love to hear about other translations of that line.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Reading Aids

I have recently come across two items that I think fit under the "All Things Reading" category and I thought I would share them.

For those of us not yet owners of a Kindle or a Nook, there is another way to read books on a smart phone or a computer through DailyLit. The site has a selection of over 900 books. Once you select a book and provide an email address you will receive the book in installments. You can review the books by Title, Author, Category or Length of Book (Dickens might take months). You can select the frequency of installments (daily, weekdays, selected days, etc.). You can adjust the length of the installment, the font and font size. The site also has forums to discuss the books, ask questions about the books, etc. And it's all free. I think this would work best on a smart phone or a netbook, on the bus to work, in a cafe with a cup of coffee. I signed up to read The Diary of a Superfluous Man by Turgenev in 21 installments. One more reason to get that Droid phone now!

I am a faithful reader of David Pogue's column in the Thursday print edition of the New York Times. On the last day of the year he gave out his Pogie awards for the best tech ideas of the year. This is what he had to say for one of them:

"READABILITY The single best tech idea of 2009, though, the real life-changer, has got to be Readability. It’s a free button for your Web browser’s toolbar (get it at When you click it, Readability eliminates everything from the Web page you’re reading except the text and photos. No ads, blinking, links, banners, promos or anything else. Times Square just goes away.

You wind up with a simple, magazine-like layout, presented in a beautiful font and size (your choice) against a white or off-white background with none of this red-text-against-black business.

You occasionally run into a Web page that Readability doesn’t handle right — no big deal, just refresh the page to see the original. But most of the time, Readability makes the world online a calmer, cleaner, more beautiful place.

Go forth and install it."

How great is that! Enjoy.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Raj Orphan

Old Filth – not exactly an appealing title. But as is explained on the first page of Jane Gardam's novel, 'Filth' is the name Sir Edward Feathers has invented for himself - Failed In London, Try Hong Kong. He has had a successful and lucrative career as a barrister and a judge in the Far East, and has now retired to Dorset with his wife Betty.

But Old Filth's retirement is not a tranquil one. As he reminisces about his life, Gardam flashes back to scenes of Filth's childhood in Malay, where, after his mother dies in childbirth, his grieving, alcoholic father leaves him to the care of the wet nurse and then ships him off to England at the age of six as a 'Raj Orphan'. At the time (the 30's – before World War II) it was apparently common for British families living in the Far East to send their young children back to England to live with foster families and then be sent to boarding schools. The idea was to save them from tropical diseases and prepare them for service to the Empire. Sounds harsh, but that's the English for you.

The story jumps back and forth between Filth's memories of his childhood and young adulthood (including as stint as a sort of security guard and companion for Queen Mary during the war) and his present day travels around England to try to resolve the turbulent emotions which hide under his 'stiff upper lip' exterior. Anyone who has ridden on the M roads in the UK will have to laugh at his motoring adventures. But his attempts to connect and come to terms with past are poignant and powerful.

Sir Edward Feathers can be snobbish, cold, and misanthropic (he can't remember the name of the maid who has worked for him for twenty years) but in Gardam's hands he becomes a sympathetic character whose loneliness is heartbreaking.I had already admired Jane Gardam's writing in "The Queen of the Tambourine" (see blog) and I now look forward to her “The Man in the Wooden Hat”, where she tells the story of Edward's marriage from his wife Betty's perspective.

PS Don't forget our round table discussion of The Radetzky March next week. There's much to talk about – fathers and sons, the simultaneous declines of an empire and a family, historical parallels.

Happy New Year and Happy Reading!