Archive for the ‘fiction’ Tag

Riches and Losses   Leave a comment

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C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold can be read as either a question or an exclamation. It depends as much on the characters’ perspectives as the reader’s, which frequently changes but isn’t distracting.

Two siblings, Lucy age 12 and Sam age 11, of Chinese descent are left as orphans. Lucy’s pragmatic whereas Sam, their father’s favorite, is stubborn. Both are intelligent, but in different ways. The first thing they need to do is bury their Ba, something they must do with some semblance of tradition. Memories of him and their Ma, who is already gone, provide the family history: life as outcasts; how Ba and Ma met; Lucy’s passion for education; Sam’s disdain of the status quo; and more. So much more.

The plot unfolds as the Gold Rush has passed its heyday and railroad lines are being set across the west. Zhang’s writing is beautifully descriptive, not only of the northern California inland but the people inhabiting the harsh environment.

Lucy’s the focus of most of the story, although Sam, Ba and Ma are vividly brought to life. Yet, Zhang has crafted a family portrait full of flaws, loyalty, tradition and equal parts optimism and pessimism. Ba was born in California and was abandoned as a child. He’s Chinese, but doesn’t know the language – something he eventually learns from his wife.

Within this poignant adventure of Lucy and Sam on their own are issues of racism, sexual identity and the meaning of family.

How Much of These Hills is Gold
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2020
272 pages

Not Made in the Shade   1 comment

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While unsettling, The Overstory by Richard Powers has some redeeming qualities; however, not enough to make it to a list of what best to read during a pandemic.

The novel is divided into four sections: Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds. Yes, it’s about trees – all trees and a variety of people who try to save, understand and replicate them in a world that’s generally superficially appreciative.

The best parts are those about the nine main characters and descriptions of specific tree species. The character development is powerful; each person’s story is unique and could stand alone. Yet, it’s predictable that at some point they will intersect – some more intensely than others.

Besides the characters, it is interesting to learn about different trees and their role in our world besides providing shade, bearing fruit or as source material for everyday products. The narrative spans time beginning with immigrants in the Iowa plains to the Redwood forests of the west coast. Relationships form, most of which are unhealthy, and are the source of many of the novel’s disturbing aspects despite being able to see what forests add to their lives.

The result for several is eco-terrorism. A disparate group form to protest logging in the Pacific Northwest. Yes, it’s fascinating to read about efforts to protect an ancient Redwood or how a misunderstood scientist is validated. Yet, there’s too much foreshadowing to know that eventually things won’t end well for anyone.

Ironically, the physical element of this tome is in debt to trees.

The Overstory
Three Bookmarks
W.W. Norton & Co., 2018
502 pages

Challenging Einstein Amidst War and Love   Leave a comment

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Relativity, an impending war, Jewish struggles and romance collide in A Bend in the Stars, Rachel Barenbaum’s remarkable debut novel.

It’s 1914 Russia. The czar has placed restrictions on Jewish communities, and most males older than 12 are conscripted to fight in the war against Germany. Initially, Miri, her brother Vanya and their grandmother  maintain their comfortable lifestyle. In part, thanks to bribes but also, despite his religion, Vanya is recognized as a brilliant physicist at the university. Miri is one of the only female surgeons in the country.

Vanya is certain Einstein’s theory of relativity is inaccurate. He knows proof will provide his family the opportunity to leave Russia for America. Photos of an upcoming solar eclipse will help Vanya demonstrate his theory. Thus begins first a race to meet an American scientist before the eclipse occurs while also avoiding capture as a deserter.

Vanya’s mind holds the key to his family’s freedom. Miri’s chance encounter with a wounded solder leads the two to risk their lives as they go in search of her brother and his companion: her fiancé .

Short chapters, vivid descriptions and well-developed characters drive the narrative. The fear of capture, the threat of firing squads and the rapidly diminishing ability to trust anyone keep the reader entranced.

Barenbaum has crafted a beautiful work of fiction based on a skeleton of actual events. Readers know Miri’s journey will reach some kind of destination; still, it’s sad when it ends.

A Bend in the Stars
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks!
Grand Central Publishing, 2019
456 pages

Rejection and Survival   1 comment

Poetic and heartbreaking, harsh and heartwarming are all apt descriptions of Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. The novel combines two of my favorite elements in one: a love story and a mystery.

Kya is six years old when she watches as her mother, carrying a suitcase, walks away from the ramshackle family home in the North Carolina marshlands never looking back. Soon, her older siblings do likewise, leaving the child with her father, an often violent drunk. Eventually, he leaves, too.

The years pass and Kya not only survives on her own, but knows the birds, fauna, flora and tides that define the marsh; the land is her life. She’s maliciously referred to as the Marsh Girl by those in the nearby town. Through the kindness of Tate, a young boy a few years older, Kya learns to read and write. When he leaves for college years later, Chase, another young man, takes an interest in her. He’s popular, handsome and hides his relationship with Kya knowing it would tarnish his reputation.

When Chase is found dead, Kya is an immediate suspect.

Owens writing beautifully of the marsh, its inlets and the open sea beyond its horizon. Kya is an endearing character, although it’s hard, at times to believe she was able to successfully slip through the cracks and thrive on her own. She’s intelligent and resourceful, she’s also experienced heartbreak after heartbreak, but it’s easy to dispel the idea that she could, in fact, be a murderer.

Where the Crawdads Sing
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
G.P Putnam’s Sons, 2018
370 pages

Mythology Brought to Life   Leave a comment

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Circe by Madeline Miller is a who’s who of Greek mythology in the best way possible. This is a tale of desire through its various expressions, mortality/immortality and love in its many different forms.

Miller has fictionalized the life of Circe, the Greek goddess. It was she who transformed the beautiful nymph, Scylla, into the six-headed sea monster responsible for the deaths of numerous sailors in a narrow channel linking two seas.

Circe, the unfavored daughter of Helios the sun god and Perse, is exiled to the island of Aiaia. Despite her isolation, she comes in contact with others associated with the Odyssey. Before she meets Odysseus, however, Hermes, Jason, Medea and Daedalus are among those she encounters.

She is granted a brief respite from exile to assist her sister who gives birth to the Minotaur. Daedalus, father of Icarus, builds the labyrinth in which the half-man half-bull was confined. Circe and the mortal craftsman return to Aiaia. While this is a significant relationship, it is Odysseus who later claims Circe’s heart. This despite  transforming his men into pigs and knowing his wife, Penelope, awaits his return.

In exile, Circe is only deprived of constant companionship. Otherwise, all of her needs are met. She discovers, through trial and error, the powers of the flora around her. Readers also learn the gods are ageless – to such an extent that Circe is hundreds of years old, with no physical evidence. Ultimately, this serves as a catalyst for her to attempt her greatest transformation ever.

Circe
Five Bookmarks
Little, Brown & Co., 2018
393 pages

Best of Friends   Leave a comment

The Friend

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez comes across as a letter to an intimate, erudite companion and also a series of journal entries about grief. Yet, it’s a story, in fact a novel, a work of fiction.

The nameless female narrator mourns the death of a dear friend, a relatively successful (male) writer, who has committed suicide. He, too, is unnamed, as are many of the characters, who are mostly peripheral, such as Wife One, Wife Three and Grumpy Vet. Some of the narrator’s graduate students are identified as someone “I’ll call …,” but only the super of her New York City apartment and a Great Dane are ascribed monikers.

Reluctantly, she takes the deceased man’s dog, Apollo, since no one else wants him; he’s old and massive. Like her, the dog also grieves. Apollo’s presence brings changes and not just to her lifestyle — despite her small apartment in a building that doesn’t allow pets. Previously, she’d only had cats. This is no immediate transformation. She recognizes he is a tie to her friend and she is not alone in her sorrow.

Nunez’s novel is also about writing. The narrator is a college English teacher. She cites writer after writer on death, grief, dogs, teaching, love and writing. Just as the woman recounts her memories of her close bond with the writer, her connection with Apollo transforms. She no longer sees him as a burden, so the question remains who is the friend: the dead writer, the narrator or the dog?

The Friend
Almost four bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2018
212 pages

Sculpting a Life From Wax   Leave a comment

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Period novels usually aren’t my thing. It could be the often flowery language, the popular use of first person narrative, the topic, the je ne sais pas. Little by Edward Carey, while guilty of the above, including the French, is captivating. The story, based on the early life of Madame Tussaud known for her wax sculptures of celebrities, is rich with humor, pathos, historical references and lively characters.

Born Anne Marie Grosholtz in 1761, Marie, as she was generally called until her diminutive size warranted the nickname “Little,” recounts her family background. She literally begins with her birth. Interspersed among the details of her life are drawings. The first identified as “Drawn by herself. In graphite, charcoal, and black chalk. (This being a likeness of her pencil.)” It’s difficult not to smile, although not all of the subsequent illustrations are humorous.

As a child, her life circumstances dramatically change following the death of her parents when she’s relegated to becoming a servant. Yet, Little is witty, intelligent and has a sharp power of observation: Traits that serve her well as her creativity and talents expand.

Little learns the craft of waxwork from the odd Dr. Curtius, who at first sculpted body parts and organs out of wax. Initially, he treats her as a ward. When the pair moves to Paris from Switzerland, her station is reduced to kitchen maid.

Carey’s epic follows the French Revolution with Little’s indomitable spirit whose name bears no reflection on her inner strength and kindness.

Little
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2018
435 pages

The Rising/Setting Sun   Leave a comment

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Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche gets off to a slow start in its account of Biafra’s struggle for independence from Nigeria in the 1960s. It gains momentum as the story evolves from more than a glimpse into African history into the lives of the characters experiencing the turmoil.

Sisters Olanna and Kainene are twins by birth only. Olanna is beautiful, warm and relinguishes her privileged lifestyle to live with Odenigbo, a university professor and strong supporter of the revolution against Nigeria. Kainene is distant, not as attractive and lives with Richard, a reserved Englishman. Ugwu is the young servant boy in Odenigbo’s house who becomes part of the family.

A host of other characters, with names hard to pronounce and keep straight, inhabit the narrative, but the above are the ones with whom the reader becomes attached. This is thanks to the author’s early descriptions of their lives before the conflict and how they are changed as a consequence of it.

Talk of a revolution becomes war and the efforts to establish Biafra as a free, independent nation push Olanna and Odenigbo deeper into the inconveniences and dangers of the conflict. Hunger, filth, death and despair surround them in their efforts to survive.

The past real-world events addressing race and class issues, ethnic histories and colonialism in Africa is haunting. As the novel progresses to its frenetic climax, I wanted a return to its earlier, meandering pace if only to spend more time with the characters.

Half of a Yellow Sun
Four-and-half Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2006
433 pages

Tasting for Evil   Leave a comment

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History has already documented the atrocities of World War II at the hands of Adolf Hitler. In addition to the horror, his idiosyncrasies and his death are well detailed. Nonetheless, author V.S. Alexander has one more story to add to the fiction side of the scales: The Taster.

Magda Ritter is adrift in war-torn Berlin. With no job or romantic prospects, her parents send her to Berchtesgarten in the German Alps to escape the bombing – to ensure her safety. Their efforts succeed but not the way Magda imagined. She’s assigned to taste Hitler’s food to ensure it’s safe for him to eat.

Alexander describes the bucolic life at Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Berghof, where much of the novel is set. It’s a stark contrast to other parts of Germany. Initially, Magda is frightened by her responsibilities, but she soon realizes they are keeping her and her family alive. Still, she is repulsed by the knowledge that by tasting Hitler’s food she is keeping him safe.

The focus of Alexander’s narrative is Magda who falls in love with Captain Weber, a conspirator within the SS. The cook, other tasters and Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, are among the interesting characters with whom Magda interacts. Feelings of mistrust, a constant cloud of fear and the blind devotion so many had toward the Fuhrer are well developed.

Alexander notes this is a work of fiction, and his research is chillingly thorough. Knowing Hitler’s death is imminent does little to dispel the thriller he creates.

The Taster
Four Bookmarks
Kensington Books, 2018
320 pages

Disconnecting the Dots   Leave a comment

 

A Separation

The narrator in Katie Kitamura’s novel, A Separation, is never named. Nonetheless, we learn other, more intimate details about her.

The title has multiple implications beginning with the fact that the narrator is separated from her husband, Christopher, and has been for six months. The couple has not announced the split; in fact, the pair has promised vowed to continue waiting before going public with the news.

Kitamura is terse in her descriptions. Yet her characters are well-developed, even the ones we never actually meet. Christopher, for example, has gone missing in Greece. Still, he is seen through the narrator’s eyes and experience.

In London, his mother Isabella, who is unaware of any change in Christopher’s marital status, contacts the narrator since messages to her son have gone unheeded. In just a few sentences, Kitamura deftly portrays the uncomfortable relationship the women share. Isabella is incredulous that her daughter-in-law has no idea of Christopher’s exact whereabouts. Both know he is in Greece and the resort hotel he checked into, but nothing beyond that.

What ensues is the narrator’s trip to Greece in search of the man from whom she is no longer in love. He’s not been seen at the hotel for several days, although all of his belongings are still there.  She’s curious,  but her heart isn’t in it. Her voice is stoic, matter-of-fact, with occasional flashes of anger or disappointment as she discovers new secrets and is placed in the awkward position of being presumed a devoted wife.

A Separation
(Barely) Four Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2017
229 pages