Monday, April 25, 2011

The Long Journey

This is the first of three non-fiction or historical fiction books I'll be blogging about the history of the Holy Land. First I revisited James Michener's "The Source", published in 1965, more than 1000 pages. Using the device of explaining artifacts from different eras unearthed at an archeological dig in Israel, Michener moves through time. He starts about 3500 BCE with cave dwellers, tracing the birth of religious feelings and ritual along with the evolution of agrarian societies. Every few decades or centuries we visit the area again to see a somewhat changed way of life. The constants are many: people of different religions trying to co-exist (or not), and conquerers blasting through massacring multitudes. The area is controlled successively by Jews, Babylonians, Assyrians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Ottomans and British.

My interest certainly picked up as it reached the more familiar Greek and Roman times. Historical figures pop up, often in unexpected contexts, adding a human dimension to the general carnage.

Reading this years ago, I recall being discouraged about human nature, with all the killing again and again. The book evoked the same sentiment this time. But it's a valuable aid to understanding the history of the area.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Art Objects

I love reading books where the author makes me feel as if I'm getting a behind-the-scenes look into a world I've never seen. If I told you that the author was Steve Martin, you would probably assume this would be the world of stand-up comedy, or Hollywood movies, or maybe even banjo playing. But in addition to his other pursuits, Martin is an avid and knowledgeable art collector, and in his novel An Object of Beauty he enters the New York art world, where his main character Lacey Yeager begins her career in 1993, working in the bins in the basement of Sotheby's auction house.

Lacey is young, smart, ambitious, opportunistic, and passionate about art, and she quickly moves to the upper floors, and eventually to the Upper Eastside, where she works in a gallery selling Old Masters. She's a strong believer in the ends justifying the means, which leads her to some interesting adventures in both her professional and personal life. As Lacey encounters both old and new art, the text is illustrated with color reproductions of some of the pieces, by well known artists as well as by some more obscure ones (at least to me). The discussion of the art is woven smoothly into the plot, and made the story all the more interesting for me.

But the most fun was seeing the inside workings of the New York art world, especially in the post-modern galleries in Chelsea, during the wild ride that stretched through the 90's and up until 2009, when the book ends. Martin cleverly skewers everyone – collectors, gallery owners and the artists themselves. I often struggle to understand contemporary art so I loved this explanation: “...irony provided an escape valve in case the visuals became too pretty. It was as if a pitcher had decided it was gauche to throw fastballs but still threw fastballs in a mockery of throwing fastballs”.

Lacey is quite cold-blooded and calculating, so it's hard to grow too attached to her, but in her way she was as fascinating as Lily Bart in “Age of Innocence”, set in New York a hundred years earlier, though it is the desire for art, not marriage, that seduces Lacey.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Cold Spell

As some of you may recall from my past blogs, I am not a fan of plots that revolve around ghosts or curses or spells or other supernatural occurrences. Don't ask me to suspend disbelief unless you're really going to make it worth my while. So I was not the ideal reader for Meg Wolitzer's The Uncoupling.

The story unfolds at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in the town of Stellar Plains, New Jersey, where a new drama teacher arrives and announces that the next production will be “Lysistrata”, the classic Aristophanes comedy about the women of Greece withholding sex in order to force their men to end the Peloponnesian War. And then an odd thing begins to happen to all the females at the school, whether they are teachers, students, or spouses. They are each touched by a cold wind which seems to cast a spell over them. And – you guessed it – no more sex, fellas.

Wolitzer takes her time with each of her female characters, developing them as flesh and blood women with aspirations and feelings. And although they are not trying to end a war, each has a believable reason that would help to explain her sudden cooling of ardor. The sexual partners of these libido-free gals are portrayed quite sympathetically as well. Wolitzer clearly isn't on a rant to trash the male species; she's examining the subtle things that can take a relationship off the tracks. She has a smooth, uncluttered writing style and a great sense of humor.

Having spun out all these storylines, Wolitzer then has to braid them all together in the last fifty pages. Her device, although somewhat predictable, was still fun to watch unfold. I'm still not the ideal reader for books that revolve around magic spells, but I'll admit that this was an entertaining read.
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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Life Without a True Compass

My bother sends me many books both novels and non fiction because he is a true book lover. He has a special enthusiasm for coming of age novels by first time authors. I don’t always get to read them all before they are claimed by family members or friends. But in his is latest group I found Alison Espach’s debut novel “The Adults”.

This story begins on a summer night in the Connecticut suburb of Fairfield. The protagonist, Emily Marie Vidal, is describing her father’s fiftieth birthday party and the rather bizarre group of party goers. “I disapprove of this party, this whole at-home affair that would mark the last of its kind”, muses Emily. And so begins the unraveling of a family. Fourteen year old Emily is your basic spoiled adolescent, the only child of two disconnected adults. The morning of the party Emily’s parents announce that they are going to divorce and Emily’s father is moving to Prague. That is only the beginning for Emily. She unknowingly witnesses a shocking sight in the trees behind her house that night. Then, a few weeks later, she is the only eye witness to a suicide of a neighbor, the father of her would be boyfriend.

The best part of this novel is the voice of Emily. It is witty, but not obnoxious and she is very aware of the world she lives in and the adults who shape that world.
The events that “happen” to Emily lead her to begin a strange, inappropriate affair. Did the events that preceded the affair make Emily take this path, or has she encountered just one more adult in her life who is without a compass?

The story goes on into Emily’s adulthood. Things get complicated and we can’t help rooting for Emily to find her way, mostly because the author makes Emily seem so authentic. The ending is a bit convoluted but it is a good story, told with a voice that is smart, witty and sympathetic.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Murder and Mayhem

It's not often that I blog about a murder mystery. After all, I'm an admirer of serious literary fiction. But come on – a country estate in late 18th century England, a mysterious anatomist, dead bodies, arsenic, riots and mayhem, a mysterious ring, orphaned children - I'm entitled to a little fun every now and then.

Imogen Robertson's Instruments of Darkness had plenty to keep me entertained. In the very first chapter, in bucolic West Sussex, a maid awakens her master to deliver a note sent by his neighbor: I have found a body on my land. His throat has been cut. That's the way to get things started! The scene soon shifts to a London music store where a friendly shop owner is murdered in front of his horrified children. What's the connection?

Robertson swings between these two storylines, as well as to scenes in Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War. The odd couple sifting through the clues are country neighbors – Gabriel Crowther, a scientist with a mysterious past, and Harriet Westerman, the intelligent if somewhat bored wife of a naval commander who is away at sea. Their relationship is initially prickly but they come to respect each other as they examine bodies, interrogate maids and rifle desk drawers, and it is their humor and honesty that keep things entertaining, even as the bodies pile up.

Robertson does occasionally gets a little carried away with her prose: “...he swung from his bed and began to dress, letting the shreds of his too-brief rest scatter about the floorboards of his room”. (Does the maid have to sweep up those shreds?). But if you're looking for an enjoyable historical whodunit (and why) I can recommend this one.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Going Home

Recently a friend lent me a copy of Rhoda Janzen's memoir Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. It's probably not a book I would have chosen for myself. The title sounded a little cutesie, and a front cover blurb by “Eat, Pray, Love” author Elizabeth Gilbert did make me worry that this was yet another book about a plucky gal finding her bliss. But you know what they say about judging a book by its cover.

It's true, there is an annoying gimmick early in the book, where Janzen presents faux questionnaires to the reader. The choices are too stupid to repeat, and she almost lost me right there. Fortunately this device is soon abandoned and Janzen, a poet and college professor, tells her story in a straightforward and very funny way.

At the age of forty-three she is abandoned by her husband of fifteen years, a brilliant, demanding, bipolar artist who leaves her for a man he met on In that same week she is involved in frightening car crash which leaves her with multiple fractures. Broken in body and spirit, she heads for home – a California Mennonite community where her parents still live.

Growing up in a strict Mennonite household, Janzen had a childhood with no TV, slumber parties, card-playing or dancing. Having escaped this rigid environment, she might easily be tempted to make fun of it. And she does amusingly recall her unfashionable clothes (as she grew her mother would sew a strip of whatever fabric she had onto the bottom of her pant legs) and her “shame-based” school lunches brought from home in a navy diaper bag. But she's not a whiner, and she's blessed with a mother whose optimism makes Pollyanna look like Eeyore, and whose enthusiasm for cooking, singing hymns and matchmaking (preferably to Mennonite farmers with tractors) is utterly engaging.

Janzen tackles the paradox that, although her sheltered upbringing may well have caused her to stay in a toxic marriage far too long, her education in the Mennonite virtues of hard work, honesty, respect for family, and responsibility allowed her survive and grow. And the sense of humor she got from her mother didn't hurt either.
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