Wednesday, June 30, 2010

More Than Just a Game

After reading Cutting for Stone (CFS) (see blog of June 22, 2010) and enjoying it so much, I wanted to read more by Abraham Verhese. Having recently taken up playing the game of tennis, I had no hesitation in choosing his The Tennis Partner. Unlike CFS, The Tennis Partner is Verghese’s memoir of his initial months on the faculty of Texas Tech School of Medicine in El Paso.

Shortly after his arrival there, he discovers that one of his assigned 4th year medical students is a former tennis professional from Australia. Tennis has a particular importance to Verghese. Growing up in Ethiopia in a somewhat dysfunctional family, Verghese found his escape in countless hours spent outside hitting a tennis ball against a wall. He had fantasized about being a great player and throughout his life had kept detailed journals of his own matches and of his heroes in the game. Before he can stop himself he is inviting David Smith, his student, to play.

That is the start of an incredible story and friendship. Smith and Verghese have much in common: their status as foreigners, their dedication to medicine, their love of tennis, and the unhappy circumstances in their personal relationships with girlfriend and spouse respectively. Verghese had intentionally selected a medical school that was not “first tier” so that he would have time to devote to other aspects of his life including his children, his writing and now, unexpectedly, his tennis. At first he worries about having this contact with his student but Verghese and Smith handle the switch in roles on and off the courts without difficulty.

As you would expect if you have read CFS, Verghese includes realistic portraits of life in the hospital and in this Texas town. There is also good instruction in tennis technique and strategy and, dare I say it, life. “Get the ball back over the net just one more time” could be a good strategy for bad times.

It is not giving much away to say that the story ends sadly. The dedication of the book is: “In memory of David Smith, M.D., 1959-1994.” I long ago learned to avoid reading the Library of Congress catalogue information on the copyright page because it could reveal too much about the book in advance. To that I will now have to add: don’t read the book’s dedication until you have finished reading the book.

Of authors who have been successful in writing fiction and memoir, the name Joan Didion comes quickly to mind. Do you know of others?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Mill Town

Tracy Winn wanted to write about a great friendship that had been lost. When she saw a news clip about a baby who had fallen into a canal and had been rescued by a mill worker, she began to imagine her story. “Mrs. Somebody Somebody” is a collection of nine short stories which are connected. Characters appear in one story and then reappear in another. The setting is Lowell, Massachusetts from 1947 to the present. The title story “Mrs. Somebody Somebody” introduces the reader to Stella who works in the Hub Hosiery Mill. Stella makes friends with Lucy who dives in to save the baby who has fallen into the river. But Lucy is not what she appears to be. Tracy Winn writes about a friendship that develops between people and the sadness that follows when people don’t pay attention to the signs that are given between friends.

The common thread of these stories is the mill and the city of Lowell. The mill is owned by the Burroughs family. The son of the family appears fleetingly in the first story. In the next story, “Blue Tango”, we learn that Charlie Burroughs, the son of the owner of the mill, is a doctor who has enlisted in the Korean War. He has left a young wife, Delia, behind. In the third story "Glass Box", we learn that Delia had a hard time being left behind. The Burroughs family and their children appear in the subsequent stories as we watch the family implode. We meet the many diverse inhabitants of Lowell throughout these stories. In “Another Way to Make Cleopatra Cry”, nine year old Kaylene and her siblings are trying to survive after their mother leaves them and their father ends up in jail. When Kaylene leaves her stepmother’s purse on the top of the car as it pulls away we watch as their whole world falls apart.

But just when you are feeling that you miss a character, they reappear in another story. The final story “Luck be a Lady” reunites Stella, Kaylene and Delia Burroughs.

Tracy Winn’s characters are well developed and defined. She has that unique writer’s talent that makes you care about her characters as much as she does. She writes sentences that are short, clipped and forceful. Her dialogue makes you feel like you are right there listening to the conversation with the characters.

This is Tracy Winn’s first published book. I hope she takes one of these very interesting characters and writes a novel about them. Tracy Winn has that magical combination of being a very good writer and a very good story teller.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Reporting from the Congo

Just this morning I heard a news report about the murder of a Rwandan journalist by assassins in Kigali. It felt like yet another chapter in the book I had just finished – Not Untrue and Not Unkind by Ed O'Loughlin. The book's main action takes place fifteen years ago in the Congo, after the Rwandan genocide of 1994, but unfortunately history keeps repeating itself.

If you've ever read Graham Greene's “The Quiet American” you may recognize the main character Owen Simmons – a war weary, cynical foreign correspondent. He reports from parts of Africa that required me to keep my atlas handy - Goma, Kinshasa, Kigali, Mbuji-Mayi . He travels with a loose group of reporters and photographers who scramble from one hot spot to the next trying to be first on the scene of the latest rebel uprising or government collapse. They forge strong friendships and loyalties. Simmons is a long term freelance correspondent who disdains a colleague who “made a fortune by turning his three-week assignments into epics of suffering and hope, with titles he stole from an English lit poetry course.” (The title of this book is from Phillip Larkin's poem "Talking in Bed" ).

O’Loughlin reported from Africa for The Irish Times in the 90's, and he clearly knows the territory. At times his style is reportorial, but he includes lyrical descriptions and thoughtful explorations of the moral dilemmas that war reporters can encounter. This is more than a story about war reporting; it is also about complicated relationships and the difficulty involved in ever really understanding another human being.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What would Flaubert Say?

In the past, I have expressed reservations about reading fiction published in translation from another language into English. An article in the The New York Times of June 21, 2010 in the “Arts, Briefly” section has only served to reinforce my opinion.

Here is an excerpt from the article:
“The Twin,” the debut novel of the Dutch author Gerbrand Bakker, has won the 2010 International Impac Dublin Literary Award, besting the well-published authors Marilynne Robinson (“Home”) and Joseph O’Neill (“Netherland”). The Impac award, organized by Dublin City Public Libraries and chosen from submissions by libraries in 43 countries, will earn Mr. Bakker, a sometime gardener and skating instructor, more than $123,000, almost $31,000 of which will be given to the book’s translator, David Colmer. “It’s wonderful,” Mr. Bakker told The Guardian while in Dublin on Thursday to receive his prize. “But for me it was also wonderful to read the book in English. I said to David the translator, ‘Who wrote this book?’ I didn’t recognize it. (Emphasis added) I thought it was very good. It made me realize it really is a book, and I am a writer.”

What should I make of the author’s comments? He didn’t recognize his own work? Was he just trying to be modest? or funny? or truthful? All that I can conclude is that, as good as the English translation may be, it will not provide the same reading experience as the original version. Of course, no two readers, even reading the same book in the same language, will have the same experience. But to give an award to a book in its translated version doesn’t seem to me to be quite right unless all of the books in contention are translations which is not the case here – even if author and translator are sharing the prize money.

I’m not ready to say that I will never read a book in translation because I may want to read Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina again, and I haven’t yet read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest (although, having worked my way up from No. 123 on the waiting list, I just picked up a copy at the library). But with respect to The Twin, I have reservations about the award. There should at least be an asterisk.

Any thoughts? Any special experience, good or bad, with a book in translation?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Do No Harm

Abraham Verghese had written two highly acclaimed memoirs before he wrote his first novel,“Cutting For Stone”. This novel is an ambitious, family epic that spans over forty years and two continents.

The narrator and protagonist of this story is Marion Stone. The story opens in 1954 as Marion describes the dramatic, frightening, haphazard sequence of events that transpired as he and his twin brother, Shiva, were born at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “Missing was really Mission Hospital, a word that on the Ethiopian tongue came out with a hiss so it sounded like Missing.”

Marion and Shiva Stone were born to an Indian nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, and an English doctor, Thomas Stone, who worked together at Missing. At birth the twins were joined at the head by a short, fleshy tube that passed from the crown of one to the other. The drama that surrounded their birth and the split second decisions made by Dr. Kalpana Hemlatha, as she worked to save the lives of these infants, is compelling to read. What transpired after the birth is sad and difficult to understand.

The boys grow up in the comforting surroundings of Missing raised by Dr. Hemlatha (Hema) and the compassionate man she finally marries, Dr. Abhi Ghosh. They are surrounded by love and the political turmoil of Ethiopia, quietly learning how to be doctors from their adopted parents and all the wonderful characters who care for them at Missing.

The author describes medical procedures and operations in minute detail that may not appeal to all readers. I found it fascinating. Verghese’s writing is clear and detailed, making the reader feel like you are right there in the operating room with these passionate, skilled doctors.

The story takes Marion to Nairobi, as he flees the Ethiopian secret police, and finally to New York where he finishes his medical training. Shiva remains in Ethiopia in his own self styled world. The appearance in New York of Marion's childhood love, Genet, brings this epic story to a sad, complicated end. This end also brings Dr. Thomas Stone back into Marion and Shiva’s lives.

In some ways Verghese has been too ambitious. He has a wonderful story to tell with fascinating characters, exciting medical procedures and important historical events. But the end seems somewhat contrived. Abraham Verghese is an author and a physician. He has attempted to give the reader a wonderful combination of both worlds. He is a great storyteller and his characters are strong, believable and memorable. Abraham Verghese has written a powerful, epic story entwining medicine, family and country that may have some flaws, but is a wonderful read.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Remembering The Eighties

I've been reading Ann Beattie for thirty years. I can still remember, in the long ago 80's, scanning the table of contents when my New Yorker arrived to see if it included one of her short stories. I'd wait until the kids were asleep, then reward myself with a good read. Her characters were often confused or uncertain, her style was spare and understated, and I always felt that I recognized the world she described. The fact that she is around my age and was born and raised in my hometown may have added to my feeling that we were from the same tribe, although her contingent led far more interesting lives than I did.

In her latest novel (more like a novella) Walks With Men, Beattie revisits the 80's with the story of a twenty-one year old woman who falls for an older man who promises that he will teach her everything she needs to know about men and life in general. (Would that have appealed to me when I was in my twenties? Maybe?). Although some of his advice (“When you travel to Europe, never wear a fragrance from the country you're in; Wear only raincoats made in England.”) seems laughable, Jane is fascinated, and leaves her boyfriend Ben (who later changes his name to Goodness) and their communal life on a farm in Vermont to live with Neal in Manhattan.

Beattie is known for her minimalist style, and her characters' motivations sometimes seem inexplicable, but I still wished I knew a little more about why Jane made the choices she did. Nonetheless, I love Beattie's ability to reveal characters through tiny flashes of dialog or observation. As in many of her short stories, the ending is unexpected, leaves questions unanswered, but is oddly satisfying.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Free Trip to Italy

I bet that I am one of the few people left who hadn’t read the book or seen the movie: Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes. It was only because of a comment at a recent book luncheon that I learned that Mayes has a local connection to the San Francisco Bay Area. So after a spate of books about wars, death, disappointment and overall sadness, I needed a “vacation”. With this book in hand I was transported to Italy without the expense or hassle of a 10-hour flight.

For the most part the book is about Mayes’ renovation of an abandoned villa in Tuscany. Her descriptions of nature, the weather and the local food are magical. Who knew this was also a cookbook? There are two sections of mouth-watering recipes: one for summer foods and one for winter. I especially enjoyed the sections of her own vacation travels around Tuscany searching for Etruscan tombs and Roman roads. Has anyone been to the hot waterfall at Saturnina? That alone sounds worth the trip. The terra cotta horses (in Italy now, not China) from the 4th or 3rd century B.C. are another reminder of just how really young our own country is by comparison and how insignificant may be the crises of the moment even as we are disappearing.

I was a little put off by her ruminations comparing the religion of Italy with the “Repent” and “Jesus Saves” culture of her own Southern (USA) upbringing. It was too much for me that this lapsed Methodist/lapsed Episcopalian would install a ceramic Mary with a small cup for holy water (for which she substituted the spring water from her property.) But if you wonder why we call them the “dog days of summer” or why a cappuccino drink is so named, it’s all in here.

Now I feel rested and refreshed – just as I would from a real vacation.

Friday, June 11, 2010

War Correspondence

What would you think of a postmistress who chose not to deliver the mail? That question is posed on the first page of Sarah Blake's The Postmistress. Uh oh – was this book going to be too melodramatic for me? I wasn't encouraged when the next chapter started with a scene in which Iris James, fortysomething postmistress of the tiny Cape Cod town of Franklin, asks her doctor to write a document affirming that she is 'intact', which she plans to present to her suitor. After reading that, did I really care whether Iris found true love? But this book is about much more than lovelorn spinsters and small town drama.

The story begins in the fall of 1940, when Europe is already at war. American radio reporter Frankie Bard is in London working for Edward R. Murrow, reporting on the Blitz. Concerned that Americans do not understand the stakes, she takes a portable recorder to Europe to interview Jewish refugees as they travel by train trying desperately to emigrate before the borders close. Blake writes movingly about Frankie's growing realization of the fragility of life and of the fateful way in which innocent mistakes can have tragic consequences.

Eventually the paths of Frankie and Iris across, along with the third main character, Emma Finch, the pregnant wife of an American doctor who, guilty about a tragic medical event, has left Franklin to go to London to help treat Blitz victims. Frankie's chance encounter with him in a London bomb shelter provides the thread that will eventually link her to the small town. And yes, there are in fact letters that may or may not be delivered. But this is far less melodramatic than it seems. The poignancy is not in the letters themselves, but in the difficult decision the characters must make about when to intervene.

Blake has done her research, and this book paints a vivid picture of a time when Americans often sought to distance themselves from the chaos and tragedy of the war. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Searching for the Truth

With “Beijing” in the title it would not be surprising to find the action of The Man from Beijing taking place in China. But the author Henning Mankell is Swedish, one of the Scandinavian mystery writers enjoying current popularity tied to the Steig Larsson books (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.). Which is not to say that Mankell is not an accomplished writer in his own right. He has published more than 15 novels and mysteries including several award winners and a PBS television series (the Kurt Wallander mysteries.) But it can’t hurt to have the Larsson wind at his back.

Before we get to China in this current book, we witness the massacre of almost all of the inhabitants, ten households, nineteen people, of the small Swedish hamlet of Hesjovallen (that may be a fictitious name but I am not sure). Our main character Judge Birgitta Roslin lives outside of Helsingborg (a real place in Sweden.) She’s overworked due to budgetary cutbacks in the Swedish judicial system; her four children are grown and on their own; and her relationship with her husband has lost its intimacy.

“I’m no longer even in the middle of my life, she thought. I’ve passed the point that one doesn’t even realize is being passed. There won’t be that many difficult decisions left for me to make. But I shall remain a judge until I retire. With luck I should be able to enjoy my grandchildren before it’s all over.” But then high blood pressure and anxiety attacks intervene and she is forced to take two weeks off…which gives her the opportunity to follow-up on her suspicion that she is related to some of the victims of the massacre. The thriller takes off from there.

The connection between Sweden and China that the author has set up is wonderfully inventive with some history thrown in, too. Some of the story is in the United States and some in Africa as well. This is what got to me: If the historical parts in the US are true, as I believe they are, then could the parts in China and Africa also be true? That would be really scary. I will be watching the headlines more carefully for connections between these two countries. A very thought-provoking book.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Joy of Flying

Jonathon Miles’ first novel “Dear American Airlines” began as an enraged letter of complaint to American Airlines for stranding him in O’Hare airport. Jonathan Miles was a free lance writer flying on American Airlines from Memphis to New York City. Due to “bad weather” the plane landed in Peoria, Illinois and the passengers were all bused to Chicago's O’Hare Airport. As Mr. Miles attempted to sleep on the floor of the airport he began a letter of complaint to American Airlines for the discomfort, inconvenience, interruptions, etc. etc. As he wrote the letter it changed in his mind from a letter about himself to a letter from someone who really could have significant, immediate issues with American Airlines.

Jonathan Miles’ protagonist becomes Benjamin “Bennie” Ford, a translator of Polish fiction who is on his way to his daughter’s wedding/commitment ceremony. The letter becomes Bennie’s lament of his life but not until he has demanded his money back in no uncertain or polite terms. But as Bennie settles into the duration of his stay at O’Hare airport he begins to relate how he got to O’Hare airport on this day. Bennie is living in New York with his mother, a stroke victim who communicates via “Post-its“. And yes there is a great deal of humor and pathos involved in Bennie’s lament. Bennie’s father was a Polish seminarian who ended up in a concentration camp. He came to America, changed his name from Henryk Gniech to Henry Ford, and became an exterminator. He met Bennie’s mom as he was exterminating a possum from her family’s attic. Bennie grows up and becomes a poet, a bartender and an alcoholic. Then he meets Stella a published poet and they try to fall in love. On the way, beautifully retold by Bennie, they beget young Stella whose wedding Bennie in on the way to when he gets derailed by American Airlines. The fact that Bennie has not seen young Stella since she was an infant adds to the humor and sadness of Bennie’s story. The fact that he might miss his chance to finally connect with young Stella adds a tremendous amount of fuel to Bennie’s lament.

Along with this very involved life story Bennie is telling, is the added dimension of the novel that Bennie is translating from Polish to English. Jonathan Miles is drawing a comparison between the protagonist in the story he is translating and Bennie’s life story. It is very interesting how the author is able to compare the two men and lead the reader to a satisfactory conclusion for both men, but not without many digressions. These digressions make for a wonderful, amusing, insightful story.

Jonathan Miles has written a short novel (180 pages) that is entertaining, poignant and well written. It is a story that gives the reader many issues to contemplate and maybe by chance will give readers a chance to “enjoy” an unanticipated layover in a random airport.

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Country House

I'm not a big fan of ghost stories – I'm always dubious about so-called supernatural events. But that doesn't prevent me from loving well-told stories where sinister elements seem to be at play – especially in English country houses. “The Turn of the Screw” is the classic in this genre, and The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is in the same tradition.

The time is 1947, the setting is Hundreds Hall in rural Warwickshire, and the Ayres family is struggling to maintain their crumbling family estate in the deprivation of the postwar economy. When their only maid falls ill, they summon Dr. Faraday, a local doctor whose mother served as a nursemaid in the grand house when he was a young boy. Faraday narrates the story, and while his scientific training prevents him from believing that mysterious forces are making mischief, he is enthralled by the house itself and by the aristocratic family – Mrs. Ayres, the elegant matriarch, Roderick, the troubled son who has been damaged both physically and emotionally by the war, and particularly Caroline, the independent unmarried daughter.

When odd things begin to happen, they are not gory Stephen King splatters, but subtle, mysterious incidents – an inexplicable scorch mark, a maid's bell that rings for no reason – that individually might be explained away but collectively increase the family's unease. Waters does a masterful job of slowly ramping up the tension, and as Faraday struggles to convince the family and the reader that there are logical explanations for everything that has happened, he begins to look suspiciously like an unreliable narrator. Does the fascination that this working-class man feels for the upper class Ayres family prevent him from recognizing the danger?

I found this a gripping and entertaining story, at every turn capable of being interpreted in at least two different ways, hurtling along to a conclusion that was unexpected but inevitable.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


This is the perfect companion book to Half of a Yellow Sun (see Anna’s blog of May 23). In fact it was in an interview with Adichie that I first heard of it. Adichie was asked one of those questions like "Who are your favorite authors?” or “What are your favorite books?” She said that one of the books that she likes to re-read is Reef by Romesh Gunesekera. Now I know why.

The narrator Triton, now grown, is reflecting back on his life starting from the time that his uncle brought him to start service as a houseboy to Mr. Salgado (sound familiar?). This time we are in Sri Lanka and Mr. Salgado is a marine biologist (hence the book’s title…and the name Triton). After a time Mr. Salgado has his mistress move in with him - much to the delight of Triton. Triton is ever eager to please. He rises from houseboy to be in charge of the household, most importantly including duties as the cook. The descriptions of his meals and the food are so tempting and mouth-watering. His attempts at roast turkey and stuffed crab are hilarious.

But there is much more going on here. As we read on, there is a subtle shift in tone. There are undercurrents of unrest both politically in the nascent democratic Sri Lanka and domestically between Mr. Salgado and mistress Nili. Colonial, class and ethnic resentments start to play out in violence threatening their way of life.

Reef is short: only 190 small pages. In beautiful language and memorable images, it describes an island paradise and way of life that no longer exist. It is history mixed with science, hope with sorrow. I will wait for a while but I also look forward to re-reading it.