I don’t recall exactly when I started reading it in 2016, but finally in April, I finished Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s first-hand account of the tragic 1910-1912 South Pole expedition, led by Robert Falcon Scott. The Worst Journey in the World is a lengthy tome (640 pages in some editions) and I did not find it easy to read, especially in the last half. Cherry-Garrard often writes well – I actually quite enjoyed the book at first, as he described the perilous ship journey to Antarctica and the first stages of the expedition. However, so much of the book consisted of highly-detailed descriptions of sledging – the snow conditions, the weight, the actions of people and animals – that the book became an absolute slog. I am capable of quitting books, even those I’ve invested in, but I chose to finish anyway. That decision came with giving myself permission to skim as necessary, however. And while I came away from the book with numerous interesting passages highlighted, any enjoyment of the book had been leached from me by the end. I cannot recommend it in good faith to anyone.
In February, I read Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (US title: Survival in Auschwitz). Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish man, was captured toward the end of World War II, shortly after he had joined a partisan resistance group. He was transported to Auschwitz, where he would labor and suffer deprivation for almost a year until the end of the war. His book describes the experience of Auschwitz – the grind of dehumanization, the systemic cruelty, the harsh conditions. The book most comes alive when the prisoners themselves become more alive – after the camp has been deserted by the camp command. Though the weak and starving prisoners have to fend for themselves, the desertion of their oppressors allows some of the prisoners’ humanity to re-emerge again after months of degradation. The book was published in 1947 in Italian, and in German and English in 1959. In the wikipedia entry for Primo Levi, it notes that he diligently attended Holocaust remembrance events and would tell his story in schools. He saw revisionist history at work, trying to diminish or deny the horror of the Holocaust, and his book serves as a testimony refuting those efforts. Though a chemist by trade, If This is a Man also shows that Primo Levi was just as much a writer, able to capture Auschwitz in all its brutal aspects. I’m curious to read the book he wrote about his long, harrowing return to his home after leaving Auschwitz.
I’m not a prolific blogger, but even by my own standards, my posting has been sparse this year. It’s just been hard to simultaneously possess the mood and the energy and the time for it.
Anyway, rather than do separate posts for the below fiction reads, here’s my quick takes on them:
In February, I read Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes, first in a YA dystopian fantasy series. It was really really boring. I only finished it because I own it.
In March, I read Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice. The author is Chilean and used a standardized test format as a vehicle for satire. I can’t say that it made much of an impact on me, but it was good to try some translated slightly experimental fiction.
I don’t read much middle grade fiction, but my sister gave me Cynthia Kadohata’s kira-kira as a gift a couple Christmases ago. Winner of the Newbery Medal, this novel is about two Japanese-American sisters who move with their parents from the Midwest to Georgia in the 1950’s. I appreciated the relationship between the two sisters – loving, but not immune to sibling squabbles – and the family dynamics and the setting had a great specificity that was very interesting. And it’s a tear-jerker too, so, you’ve been warned.
My book club read for this year was Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. It’s a family saga that follows the descendants of two half-sisters. One half-sister is taken on a slave ship from Ghana to the United States. The other half-sister’s family is – at least initially – complicit in the slave trade while remaining in Ghana. Each chapter captures the story of one generation in each family line. As with all novels in this format, there will be certain people’s stories that resonate more than others. I found the Ghana chapters fascinating because it was a history that I was less familiar with. However, the chapters that were most emotionally resonant with me were the one about a descendant in Baltimore living in fear of the Fugitive Slave Law and a later chapter about a descendant in the Reconstruction-era South arrested under ridiculous pretenses and, as a prisoner, forced to work in the mines. An impressive book overall.
I read most of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies in an airport. It is the perfect airport book – page-turning family drama, great character dynamics, a little mystery. The ads for the TV show made me curious about the book, and now I want to watch the TV show.
In the romance vein, I read new-to-me author Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady, which I really enjoyed. I also read Lucy Parker’s Pretty Face, her follow-up to Act Like It. I think I liked Pretty Face even more than Act Like It. The challenges of the relationship are real, the dialogue is great, and it’s just a perfect combination of chemistry and humor. I also picked up the latest Julie James’ The Thing About Love. I think this is her first that has a female FBI agent as a protagonist? (She has a whole series that is FBI agents and district attorneys.) Anyway, Julie James is a reliably good author and The Thing About Love was no exception.
Despite romance being nearly every girl’s goal in Rona Jaffe’s 1950’s classic The Best of Everything, it is not a romantic book. Set in New York City, the book follows three young women who work for a publishing firm. All are working girls, but the expectation and hope of each is to find love and marriage (with the possible exception of Caroline, who seems to have more career aspirations than the others). However, the world is of course horribly sexist and the women find themselves having to navigate the minefields of lascivious bosses and callous rich playboys. Jaffe is writing a world that she knew and it shows – she captures a scene and an era with storytelling flair.
Just before the fifth book of the Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series came out, I read the second: The Queen of Attolia. As with the first book, the slow build-up absolutely pays off. Turner has a gift for hiding plot twists and revelations in plain sight. Her surprises never feels hokey. I love the character of Gen, and his character evolves in this book in compelling ways. The only part of the book I did not love was protracted passages of military strategy. I know it supported the world-building, but I just wanted to get back to scenes of conversations and action.
The most recent fiction book I’ve completed is Elizabeth Elo’s North of Boston. It’s a mystery set mostly in Boston. Elo packs a lot into her book. I particularly enjoyed the complexity of her main character, Pirio Kasparov. The book starts with the funeral of Pirio’s friend, who died in a boating hit-and-run. Pirio was on the boat too but managed to miraculously survive floating in the cold water for a long time (which makes the US Navy very interested in her). There are some plot turns that stretch credulity, but I didn’t really care. I liked the crazy stuff. I was however super annoyed that Pirio was given a love interest. It wasn’t believable and it wasn’t necessary. It came late in the book, so I had been getting excited that I might have a book in my hands about a single person who stays single throughout. But alas, here came a rushed romantic subplot – a tiny one, but a terrible one.
1962. 214 pages.
Recommendation from: Jenny and Teresa of Shelf Love
In January, I read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. In 1960, the author went on a road trip around the U.S. with his dog Charley. (I loved that one of his first visits was to Maine, my home state.) As with his novels, Steinbeck displays good humor and is incredibly insightful about people, to include himself. Reading this book so soon after the Presidential inauguration, this passage about Steinbeck and his sisters seemed appropriate:
Each evening we promised, “Let’s just be friendly and loving. No politics tonight.” And ten minutes later we would be screaming at each other…
“Father would turn in his grave if he heard you.”
“No, don’t bring him in, because he would be a Democrat today.”
“Listen to you. Bobby Kennedy is out buying sacks full of votes.”
“You mean no Republican ever bought a vote? Don’t make me laugh.”
It was bitter and it was endless. We dug up obsolete convention weapons and insults to hurl back and forth . . . A stranger hearing us would have called the police to prevent bloodshed. And I don’t think we were the only ones. I believe this was going on all over the country in private. It must have been only publicly that the nation was tongue-tied.
Steinbeck’s descriptions of nature, too, are evocative – there’s a passage about redwoods that I particularly liked.
As far as the subtitle goes, Steinbeck makes no conclusions or pronouncements about America, but he does capture some of the country’s appeal and also its sins. Toward the end of the book, he stops in New Orleans to witness “The Cheerleaders” – a group of women who had been gathering at a school every morning to scream obscenely at young black schoolchildren who were being integrated into the school. The sight and the conversations he has later with other people in Louisiana on the way out make him feel very weary.
I love travel memoirs and I loved Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, so this book was definitely right up my alley.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Book Chase – “I admit to being a little disappointed that Steinbeck misrepresented the origin of some of what he claims happened in Travels with Charley mainly because it makes me wonder if he simply set out with a specific agenda in mind and made sure that he got the answers that supported his own views about the social condition of the country.”
Pining for the West – “As I said, I really loved this book but for me it was too short. I would have liked more details. Things like how far he was actually travelling between various states and maybe a bit more in the way of descriptions of the scenery. It probably didn’t occur to him that such details would be of interest to someone sitting reading it in Scotland, or for that matter someone reading it 50 years after it was written.”
Teresa of Shelf Love: “Travel stories bring out the humor, especially when the travel is unconventional and involves a dog! But for me, it was his treatment of the people he met that really stood out. He does seem to want to find the dignity within each one”
2015. Tim Duggan Books. Hardcover. 257 pages.
British journalist Tim Judah’s book In Wartime is a collection of short dispatches from towns and regions around the country of Ukraine. These dispatches are mainly focused on current events – the aftermath of the Maidan Revolution, the annexation of Crimea, the fighting in the east. However, the book is also an exploration of Ukraine’s history and its citizens’ framing and understanding of that history.
I was not keen on the structure of this book. The author could not seem to decide whether the chapters were independent pieces or part of a greater whole. That said, I learned a lot about Ukraine that I didn’t know before. It’s a country that has seen repeated upheaval of its population: the Holocaust, war, famine, forcible exile and relocation. Many towns and regions are full of residents who have only lived there for a generation or two.
There were also thematic through-lines, even if the structure didn’t develop those themes as much as it could have. Themes include the interpretation of history (as mentioned before), the complicated nature of national identity in the region, and the havoc wreaked by corruption.
Russia’s disinformation campaigns in Ukraine was a topic covered in the book that was of course of interest to me, considering their own disinformation campaigns in my country. I think people overestimate their independence of thought, and underestimate the power of such campaigns to influence popular framing of people and events.
Overall, I found the book slow going due to the structure, but I’m glad I read it, as I feel more informed about Ukraine and the challenges it faces as a country.
I received a copy of this book for review via Blogging for Books.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Hadrian (from Goodreads): “Gives the locals plenty of space to talk about themselves, and takes pains to understand the historical roots (and the exploitation of history) behind current grievances. At turns gruesome and understated. Important stuff.”
Lance Charnes (from Goodreads) “The effect is pointillistic: a quote here, a poignant sight there, a bit of history to explain a particular point, some fact-checking. When you pull back, the dots become a picture. He reports what his interviewees say, but he later debunks their more egregious lies and fantasies (which are distressingly common; weaponized history and fake news are like air there, especially in the eastern part of the country).
Maphead’s Book Blog – “While perhaps not a page-turning, nevertheless it’s probably the best book out there when it comes to showing just how complex and, well, horribly messed-up the situation has been in Ukraine.”
2016. ebook. Simon & Schuster. 432 pages.
The excellently-titled Everyone Brave is Forgiven turned out to be an excellent novel all the way through, proving that it is apparently still possible to write a worthwhile addition to the oversaturated market of WWII fiction. The book starts off briskly at Britain’s entrance to the war in September 1939. The three main characters are: Mary North, a young upperclass woman who signs up for the war and is assigned to be a teacher; Tom Shaw, an education administrator and Mary’s eventual lover; and Alistair Heath, an art conservator and Tom’s best friend who signs up for the Army. The novel follows the homefront characters (Mary and Tom) through the London Blitz, while much of Alistair’s story takes place at the Siege of Malta, which I admit I knew nothing about before reading this book. The book ends in June 1942, several months after the American forces arrive in England.
I loved Cleave’s writing, especially his handle on dialogue and characterization. There’s wit, and profundity and tragedy all fixed up together. An example passage:
His men headed for the pubs on the back streets behind the station, where the licensing hours had been quietly surrendered. The soldiers would drink ale until dusk and then switch to whisky and fists. They would fight the Navy if available, other regiments if not, and the RAF as a last resort since it was not good form to bother the afflicted.
Occasionally, Cleave’s figurative language was a little over-the-top for my tastes, but that is a small quibble when I consider how invested I became in the story. Cleave crafts some very harrowing scenes which had me spellbound. I stayed up way past my bedtime finishing this book.
While the book honors the men and women who faced the war, it is no blind paean. As one character jokes to another in gallows humor: “This helpful war. It makes us better people and then it tries to kill us.” Too many lives are lost, among them children. And those with brave and good hearts falter under the psychological and physical trauma inflicted upon them.
One of the novel’s plotlines involves the ugly side of the children’s evacuation from London – the children who are rejected and/or mistreated by the homes in the country, often due to reasons of disability and race. There is no Narnian wardrobe, or Bedknobs & Broomsticks adventure for them, no Mr. Tom. Instead, these outcast children are eventually returned to their families in London, into the path of the Blitz. As Mary tells her mother late in the novel, “We are a nation of glorious cowards, ready to battle any evil but our own.”
Cleave was apparently inspired to write this book based on some of his own family history. One of his grandfathers fought in the siege of Malta, and was also assigned to be the minder of Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph Churchill. One of Cleave’s grandmother’s drove ambulances in Birmingham during the Blitz, as the characters Mary and her friend Hilda do in the novel for a time, but in London. Cleave’s other grandmother had been a teacher.
If you’re curious about this book, I recommend downloading the sample first chapter if you have an ereader. If you like the first chapter, you’ll like this book. It is reading the sample that pushed this novel higher on my to-read list, and I’m so glad I prioritized it.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Farm Lane Books – “This book covers a subject that has been written about thousands of times before, but somehow Chris Cleave shows it to us in a fresh light.”
Lit and Life: “Cleave’s writing grabbed me and held onto me with its honesty, intelligence, and emotion. More than once, I found myself thinking “oh, please no” and just as often “oh, yes, this.””
RuthAnn (Goodreads reviewer): “Unfortunately, the ending felt a bit flat to me, and the pacing was off, so not a great finish in my eyes. Overall, though, it’s a book that’s definitely worth reading, and I think it lives up to the hype.“
2013. ebook. 308 pages.
Recommendation from: Iris on Books (though I can’t find her review now)
The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord was the first book of 2017 that I really escaped into, and it was such a relief to fall under its spell, as my mind had become rather consumed by the news in recent weeks.
It is not a dark novel, but the premise of Lord’s book starts with a genocide. The Sadiri planet was fatally poisoned by a rival planet, and only the expatriate and off-world Sadiri (mostly men) are left to carry on their people’s culture and traditions. (In culture and mental capabilities, the Sadiri are reminiscent of the Vulcans from Star Trek.)
A group of Sadiri are sent to the Cygnus Beta colony to investigate it as a possible new home. The Cygnus Beta planet is inhabited by a variety of people groups, and the Sadiri hope to find prospective mates among them who can help keep the Sadiri ways alive for future generations.
The main character is a government scientist of the Cygnus Beta colony named Grace Delarua. Due in part to her rapport with Sadiri councillor Dllenahkh, Delarua ends up on a field assignment that takes her, Dllenahkh and a team of Sadiri and Cygnian government employees on an investigative tour of far-flung Cygnian settlements.
The structure of The Best of All Possible Worlds is episodic, but not in a bad way. It’s kind of like a season of television. Almost every visit to a new settlement includes a little mini-story arc. (Instead of mystery-of-the-week, a TV version of the story would have “settlement of the week”). The various cultures and traditions of the settlements are fascinating. It reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader in some ways.
The novel’s ensemble game is strong. Although the relationship between Dllenahkh and Delarua forms a major plotline, Lord has made the group dynamics just as important, and the growing bond between them is readily apparent.
Most of the novel is narrated by Delarua, and I was delighted by her humor and accessibility as a main character. It’s actually laugh out loud funny at times. Another amusing aspect: one of the people groups in this universe is called Terran, which is quite obviously of Earth origin, and it’s fun to see which cultural objects made it to Lord’s far-future setting.
I don’t think this novel will appeal to everyone, but I hope that if any of the story elements above sound intriguing to you, that you will give it a shot because it’s really such a lovely book. Also, I found out after finishing the book that Karen Lord is from Barbados, so if you’re looking to diversify your reading, this may be one to add to your reading stack. I hope to read her first book, Redemption in Indigo, at some point.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Lilia Ford – “… it proceeds with a remarkable absence of the usual melodrama, speechifying and point-hammering that you might expect to find in this kind of story. Instead the ideas and connections emerge almost invisibly through the sum of many encounters, many scenes, where the point is often not obvious.” (Lilia was sold on this novel by someone telling her that it was Jane Austen Star Trek.)
Me, You and Books – “…somehow, the whole of the novel is greater than its parts. I can’t describe this or that aspect of the novel—its descriptions, characters, plots—as exceptional, but I was totally mesmerized by it.”
Wendy (Bibliosanctum) – “Reading this book gave me the feeling of being comfortable no matter where I was. I felt like I was sitting in my cozy reading chair with these characters, enjoying the story as it quietly unfolded. It’s probably not a coincidence that the story is told in the first person by Delarua, who has the innate ability to calm those around her, even while being a very emotionally expressive person with empathic abilities.”