Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Sarah's Key" by Tatiana de Rosnay

This is a book I came across while browsing in the wonderland that is Books-A-Million (or maybe it was Sam's Club. They have a few pretty good books too). I knew from the blurb that part of the story takes place in Paris during WWII, and involves a ten-year-old girl who tries to protect her younger brother by locking him in a hidden cupboard, only to be forcibly taken away from her home before having a chance to unlock the cupboard door. This idea was so horrifying to me that I was hoping someone else discovered the locked door and let the boy out before it was too late. And of course I was compelled to read the book so I could find out the truth.

This is one of those books that takes place both in the present and in the past, with alternating chapters, though only for about half of the book. It was odd to be jumping back and forth over 60 years and yet not continue the entire novel in this way. (The second half of the novel occurs entirely in the present.) The central event in the past is the Vélodrome d'Hiver roundup of Parisian Jews, thousands of whom were children, on July 16, 1942, also referred to as Vel' d'Hiv'. I'd never heard of this part of history, and had had no idea about the complicity and participation of the French government (French police performed the roundup as ordered by the Germans) in the extermination of Jews during the Holocaust. I was glad to have read this book if only for the opportunity to learn about something that needs to be remembered.

I was a little disappointed in the writing, which tended to annoy me at times. The chapters in the past, told from the perspective of the 10-year-old girl in 1942, were very repetitive (this is not a real example, but there were a lot of lines like: "Why? Why was this happening? Why was this happening to us?"), and the chapters from the present, following American expatriate journalist Julia through Paris as she researched the Vel' d'Hiv', often seemed to have an awkward syntax. I thought this might be because this is the first book the author has written in English (she was born in France) but it seems English is her first language, so maybe that has nothing to do with it. Another thing that was odd to me was how it seemed the book should have ended with the last chapter from 2002. The final nine chapters continue the story after a three year jump ahead in time, and they read like a really long, really drawn out epilogue.

Some of the plot points (which, it seemed, I wasn't supposed to figure out until the author's big reveal of each) were rather exasperatingly obvious. For instance, the fact that Sirka and Sarah Starzynski were one and the same was no surprise to me. I knew it wasn't over between Bertrand and Amélie as soon as she was introduced. I also knew that Julia had named her baby Sarah when she told William that the giraffe's name was Lucy, even though this wasn't confirmed until six pages later. The one thing I was kept guessing about, however, was the fate of little Michel. It was like a punch in my own gut when the "rotten stench hit [Sarah] like a fist." For a little bit after that I thought I didn't want to continue reading, but I did anyway. And then I couldn't put the book down. Even with irritating writing, I found myself drawn into the story. I stayed up until 1 a.m. and got within 20 pages of the end before I paused to wonder what I was doing to myself, went to sleep, and finished reading today.

Another thing that caught me by surprise was that Julia didn't end up with Guillaume. When she didn't, though, I realized I was glad she didn't get stuck with another Frenchman after Bertrand. Kind of like the way I didn't want my sister to find herself with another German, although I'm OK with it now, since I think she has picked a good one this time. By the way, I found it somewhat ironic that Julia ended up with William. Isn't that the English version of the French name Guillaume? Actually, now that I think about it, I guess we don't really know if she ended up with William, but it certainly seemed to me that she would.

A note on the book's cover: I'm pretty sure the photo shows the palace from the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. I am also pretty sure you can't see the Eiffel Tower from that vantage point. But that's OK. It's a pretty picture, anyway.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"The Republic of Trees" by Sam Taylor

I finally found myself ready to read this one. I don't know why I avoided it for so long--probably because I had such high expectations of it, after how much I enjoyed Taylor's The Amnesiac, and I feared disappointment.

I'm so glad to say I was not disappointed. Now, I must expand upon that statement, because there's more to it than my pleasure at avoiding disappointment. I didn't like this one as much as I liked The Amnesiac, and I would hesitate to recommend this book to just anyone. I would probably have someone try one of Taylor's other books first before I would mention this one to them. It's definitely powerful, and not for everyone. It was interesting to note the same theme of amnesia in both books, although the treatment differs between the two. In Republic, the amnesia seems like more of a literary device used because it is convenient for the plot; in Amnesiac the amnesia has more of a central purpose. I wonder what's behind Taylor's fascination with the subject?

In a nutshell, this book is about two brothers (Michael, the younger, and Louis) and a neighboring brother and sister (Alex and Isobel) who decide to throw off the bonds of civilization and create their own republic in the forest near their town. It begins in an idyllic manner, with each member of the republic spending his or her time in doing as they please, which seems to work well until the arrival of Joy (about whom I'm still wondering if she may have been a figment of Michael's imagination, or a metaphor for something I haven't quite figured out yet). Louis has always admired the works of Rousseau, namely The Social Contract; after Joy's arrival, the group of five become more serious about the politics of their republic, using Rousseau's book as their bible. The third part of the novel is pretty much just horrifying, as their republic crumbles on the weak foundation of Michael's madness and Joy's calm but steadfast goading.

I'm sure I'm not the first person to have had this idea, but I can't help but compare this book to Lord of the Flies, with their many similar elements. Of course it's been years since I've read LOTF, so I'm a little foggy on the details, but I don't recall any girls in that one, so Taylor's book introduces a new element of sexual tension.

I was left with many questions. First, I wonder what caused Michael's significant break from reality? His insanity seems to begin in earnest between parts one and two of the book, after he confesses his love to Isobel and before he awakens from his odd dreams during which Joy appears. The other members of the Republic decide MIchael must have hit his head, perhaps in a fall from a tree, which knocked him unconcsious for an indeterminate amount of time. Of course, Michael had always had an odd separation from reality, seen in his frequent and deep daydreams; but what is it that tipped him over the edge? It seems like a head injury is too shallow an explanation, but that's the only one I come up with. Later his blackouts might be attributed to alcohol, but even this seems inadequate.

Second, where had everyone in the town gone, when Isobel tried to run away and found all the houses deserted? Did they disappear when the Republic decided to believe that nothing else existed? I am trying to force this book into the idea that the children had decided to exist outside of a normal, sane reality, and that there must be a rational explanation for all of their odd circumstances even if their perception led them to believe otherwise, but the only rational explanation I can come up with (the town was evacuated for fear of the Republic's raids) seems just as unlikely as the idea that the townspeople just ceased to exist because of the Republic's unbelief.

Third, what the heck was the stinky hole under the tent all about? I can't even come up with any sort of plausible explanation for that. Sure wish I could ask the author.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"The Secrets of a Fire King: Stories" by Kim Edwards

Short stories fit so nicely into my life. I don't know why I don't read more of them. Maybe it's because sometimes they can be so ____________ (fill in the blank with words like "weird," "pointless" or "inexplicable"). Every now and again you'll find a stellar collection like Salinger's Nine Stories, or a nice compilation of ghost stories. Those annual Best American Short Stories books can be pretty decent too. But I have found that, in general, selecting a book of short stories can be a little risky in a kiss-a-lot-of-frogs sort of way.

Happily, this book was nowhere near as slimy as a frog. I really quite enjoyed it. Short stories don't give me much time to think deep thoughts, so pretty much all I've done is jotted a few notes on each story. I was amazed at the author's ability to create such variety--her characters have such a range of nationalities, occupations and socioeconomic statuses, and still each one of them seems so real and believable.

The Great Chain of Being: The story of Eshlaini/Rohila. This could have been fleshed out into an entire, year-spanning novel.

Spring, Mountain, Sea: A young carpenter fresh out of the Navy and the wife he brought back from Asia deal with cultural differences. This, too, could have been an entire novel, covering the time from the early years of their marriage, through the birth of their three children, to the death of Jade Moon. Interesting how the idea of a person's name and its importance was a theme in this story as well as the previous one. I also liked how, in such a short story, the author was able to cover so many years while bringing just a few significant events into sharp focus.

A Gleaming in the Darkness: A glimpse at the life and work of Marie Curie through the eyes of one of the cleaning ladies at the university. This kind of made me want to read a biography on Curie.

Balance: Traveling acrobats have spent years trying to successfully make love while standing on their heads (literally). Then, ack! Choose your own ending! What happens??

The Way It Felt to Be Falling: Funny title to follow the last story. Coincidence? Anyway, this one is about skydiving. Pretty intense in the middle when I was sure Stephen would choose to plummet to his death. I wonder if the author has experienced skydiving before? If not, she did her research well, because her description was dead-on.

The Invitation: The expatriate lives in Malaysia for 30 years before she realizes that the superiority she feels, which she thought was so carefully concealed (even from herself), is completely unfounded and the source of an equally great contempt in those around her.

Aristotle's Lantern: Utopian scientific community in the South Pacific. As I read I thought how different this community was from that of Shirley Jackson's short story The Lottery. This new community was so welcoming of the idea of growth and change. Even so, though, I felt a foreshadowing of impending doom.

The Secrets of a Fire King: The lives of traveling evangelists and a fire-eater are intertwined.

Thirst: A thirsty woman watches her three daughters play on the beach. Why is she so thirsty? Is she a diabetic? No. Is she pregnant? No. Is her thirst really not that big of a deal, something insignificant? No. The answer is something I never would have guessed! This may have been my favorite story of the collection.

Sky Juice: Two Asian women, bonded by the loss of their respective brothers, escape prostitution only to be separated from one another by the loneliness of mail-order marriages.

Gold: A poor Malaysian man is struck by gold fever until a brush with death transforms his obsession into religious fervor.

In the Garden: A wealthy Pittsburgh steel magnate shares what he believes to be the elixir of life with his beautiful young neighbor who refuses to be bound by convention.

Rat Stories: Conversation turns to past experiences with rats as a small group shares drinks after a dinner party. Claire then unexpectedly finds out that her husband is another sort of rat, but oddly enough, she doesn't let on that she knows.

The Story of My Life: The daughter of a famous abortion protester realizes that her mother is a manipulative liar; she leaves so that she can live her own life instead of her mother's.

Monday, March 15, 2010

"The Dark House" by John Sedgwick

This book caught my eye on It sounded like a book my mother would not approve of. It's about a Peeping Tom of sorts, involves an old murder and secrets of the past, and the author is likened to Ian McEwan--what more could I want? The warning in bold face on the back of the book, "Don't read this book alone at night," only made me want to read it more.

As so often happens, this book was not what I expected. First of all, it never got creepy enough that reading it alone at night would have been a problem. (Boo hiss!) Second of all, the main character (Rollins, the Peeping Tom) was really, really weird. I mean, yeah, you have to figure a Peeping Tom would be somewhat weird, but this one is painfully awkward and bizarrely antisocial in a passive way. I had trouble understanding him and connecting with him. Though, now that I think about it, perhaps that was intentional, as pretty much everyone in the book had the same problem. I certainly couldn't see why in the world Marj put up with him. And third, the story seemed to be a rather pedestrian potboiler thinly disguised as a psychological oddity. Reading it was like observing a split personality in the strange love child of Dean Koontz and Sigmund Freud.

I don't know whether to complain that this book was predictable, or to bemoan the fact that so often the plot seemed to be going in a certain direction and then just . . . didn't. So many times the author seemed to be building up to a tense and mysterious revelation, but then he would stop short and take the most obvious route. Rollins would get himself deeper and deeper into a situation that could mean hot water for him even though he was innocent (being alone in his apartment with his neighbor's young daughter? being alone in the house with his dad when his dad shot himself?) and I would be thinking, Oh no, they're going to think he did something . . . and then no one gave his odd behavior a second thought.

There were times that Rollins' attempts to unlock the secrets of his past with the help of his patchy memory reminded me of one of my favorite reads, The Amnesiac, but somehow this one wasn't nearly as delicious.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

"Death at La Fenice" by Donna Leon

I am not sure why, but I have been dragging my feet about reading the two murder mysteries that Joyce loaned to me most recently. I have such a good bunch of books to choose from every time I'm ready to start a new one. This is both good and bad; it's wonderful to have a great selection, but it's so hard to choose just one! But I hate to keep books that have been loaned to me for too long, so it's time I tackle them.

Here's one big difference between this book and Agatha Christie's mysteries: in a Christie book, I find myself suspecting just about every single character at one time or another. In fact, if I ever "guess" the murderer, it really doesn't count because I probably guessed everyone else too. This book is the opposite, because throughout most of it, I guessed no one. It sounded like there were three main suspects (the wife, the opera singer, and the opera singer's lover), but none of them seemed guilty to me. In real life it would have been the wife. But I really hoped it would turn out to be someone entirely different.

Although I suspected no one, I sure sniffed out a lot of false trails. First I thought maybe Wellauer's second wife's death might have been a murder rather than a suicide. I also thought maybe the conductor was killed before his "last performance," and an imposter (of course, the murderer--or at least an accomplice) conducted in his stead, which would explain his lack of talent after years of genius. I found myself waiting for a second murder to occur. Then, when it came out that Wellauer hadn't done a good job during rehearsals either, and that he perked up during a crescendo, and his doctor knew he had suffered slight hearing loss several months earlier, I thought he had experienced sudden and devastating deafness, which would explain the poor quality of his recent conducting; and that he killed himself, which would solve the "murder." Really, though, I hoped all of my guesses were wrong and that I would be utterly surprised (but only if the solution were completely logical and exceedingly clever). And I won't tell you which of my ideas I was right or wrong about, because there is no more sure way to ruin a murder mystery than to know "whodunit" before you even read the book, but I will say I didn't guess everything.

I love the way the main character, Brunetti, treats his boss, Patta, for whom he does not have an excess of respect. Brunetti is perfectly polite and correct in his conversations with Patta, but he answers his questions literally or gives ridiculously obvious replies, playing dumb just to get on Patta's nerves. The boss isn't smart enough to see through Brunetti, and I believe that Patta actually thinks Brunetti really is a little bit stupid. It's so subversive.

I was a little bit insulted by the comment in the book that "the American government seemed to fare well with a population that wanted [censorship of the press]." I can't figure out where the author got this idea, and I would love to hear more from her about it. As soon as I read this I thought, "Who is this author, to think such a thought? Is she an American insulting her own people, or is she some other nationality?" I turned to the synopsis about her (which was hiding from me in the front of the book, rather than being in the back where it belonged) and found that she is American but is basically what I would consider an expatriate, having lived in many different countries, including Venice for the past twenty years. Of course, now that I think about it, I do recall friends of mine who have lived both in and out of the country lamenting the amount of world news that is regularly disseminated in America (i.e., not enough). I wonder if that is the same sort of thing Leon was referring to. Anyway,
I was mollified somewhat when she insulted Germans too, by mentioning a "Germanic ability to remove truth simply by ignoring it." I have no idea whether this is true or not, but it made me feel better that the author was not taking potshots at Americans alone.

This was a good book, well-written and enjoyable, but it took me a week to read it. This normally indicates one of two things: either it's a longer book, or I never really got very excited about reading it. This book was 270 pages. You do the math.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

"Run" by Ann Patchett

I think this was another one from the "100 Most Read Books" list. It's definitely a good one. I'm not marking it a "must read," but it is a close runner-up.

This is one of those rare books that starts strong and keeps that pace. I liked the first line: "Bernadette had been dead two weeks when her sisters showed up in Doyle's living room asking for the statue back." That grabbed me right away and drew me into the story, as any good first line should.

The title of the book was well-chosen. It was interesting to see how that word fit into the lives of so many of the characters. It was most obvious with Kenya and her great talent for running, and more subtle for the others: Sullivan running from his problems in Africa; Tip running down his own path even though his father had other hopes for him; Doyle running for office (though this was in the past) and hoping his sons would follow in his footsteps; the pace of the book; and even, if I stretch it a little too far, Tennessee getting run over.

I loved when a big revelation was coming and one tiny clue made me realize the answer a paragraph or two before it was spelled out, like when Tennessee "reached into her own hair and pulled on one of her little braids." That was one of those moments that caused everything to shift so that something previously unthought of came into focus. Or earlier in the book, when small hints were doled out bit by bit, like "Teddy had always been her favorite of the two brothers" or "Kendra was never allowed to speak to the Doyles," each hint reminding me there was a little mystery to figure out, until I was sure before the truth was revealed.

My favorite character was Kenya. She was so impressively self-sufficient and self-possessed--qualities admirable (and rare) enough in an adult, but made all the more amazing when found in an eleven-year-old.

I think Anne would find the priest's philosophy on what does (or doesn't) follow death interesting. After a lifetime of encouraging others to "constantly strain forward to see the power and the glory that was waiting up ahead," he had come to wonder whether "God may well have been life itself," and we ought to "elevate the present to a state of the divine . . . How wrongheaded it seemed now to think that the thrill of heartbeat and breath were just a stepping stone to something greater . . . Life itself had been holy."

At the top of this post I'm actually displaying cover art that does not match the copy I read, because I like it so much better than the boring mottled blue one I have in hand. See?