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Archive for the ‘books’ Category

I listened to “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen, beautifully read by Francois Chau, and found it intense, gripping, bitterly funny, heartbreaking and brutal. The character, who I believe is never named, but often called Captain for his rank in the secret police of South Vietnam, is nuanced, flawed, complex and conflicted; his fatal flaw being the ability to see both sides of a question. As a spy for the Viet Cong, embedded within the ranks of South Vietnamese army and recruited into the military police, he has to interrogate captives from the North with whom he sympathizes and is secretly working; he also has to report to his superiors on the movements of the South Vietnamese with whom he lives and works. This duality is present in his origins as the son of a Vietnamese maid and a French priest who never outwardly acknowledged him. The book begins and ends in southeast Asia, with the hero on the last plane out of Saigon and at the end, preparing to embark on a perilous journey as one of the ‘boat people’ to escape the oppressive regime of the conquerors. The long, middle portion is a fantastic tale like something out of Dostoeyvsky as the Captain continues in his dual role, spying on the South Vietnamese refugees living in California and plotting their return. His convoluted, even horrifying, maneuverings to avoid arousing suspicion in the General and Madame, his wife, while wooing their wayward daughter; the incredible interlude where he advises a movie director and is present at the making of a movie about the Vietnamese war, almost getting killed in the process; and his disastrous return to Vietnam, make for a suspenseful read (or listen). Best of all is the lush prose sprinkled with double entendres and near puns, that make for a fresh, distinctive style, sometimes airy and delightful, at others clinical and disturbing. The last part of the book is less humorous, more brutal (extremely difficult at times) and even a little tedious (as being a prisoner in a concentration camp probably is in reality), and the resolution of the plot threads is slightly less than plausible, but these are quibbles. The plotting is mostly superb, the characters are realistic and the situation is compelling to say the least.

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Dostoevsky

I read Crime & Punishment without effort some years ago, but I had a lot of trouble getting back to this book after starting it in 2013. Thanks to Audible.com, I spent 36 of my commuting hours listening to the whole thing, and enjoyed it immensely (the Constance Garnet version, read by Frederick Davidson, who did an excellent job with most of the voices). The first thing I noticed was the digressive style, as the narrator would often pause in what seemed to be the main thread of the novel and divert our attention to some other incident or person that we needed to know about and fill us in with all the relevant details. It all came together in the end and this style of writing resulted in a broad study of Russian characters and of the changing times. The Karamazovs (Father and sons) seemed to illustrate certain Russian ‘types,’ and Smerdiakov (also one of the brothers, it seems) was a brilliant study of the resentful peasant on the rise. The account of the trial where the lawyers for both the prosecution and defense built up their edifices of conjecture was handled masterfully, although I had a growing sense of dread as to the outcome. The reader knows the truth, but facts seem irrelevant as each person believes what they want to believe.

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Turgenev

I was recently thinking about Turgenev. Why, you ask? It started with a great story, The District Doctor, sent out by Short Story Thursdays some time last summer. I think I’ve only read one work by Turgenev, “A Month in the Country,” which I liked a lot. There is something about the Russian summers in literature, something like redemption. In any case, the moderator/dictator/passionate advocate for reading who runs SST, mentioned “The Torrents of Spring” as a great novel by Turgenev. I added that to my must-read list and questioned why I hadn’t thought to look into other works by this Russian Great – SST’s favorite Russian by the way. To get to the point, I finally got around to reading this and it is a great novella with a very natural tone and wonderful characters. The surprising twist it takes in the middle which sets everyone on a different path than what was expected is quite thought-provoking, especially as you get older and start evaluating choices and consequences and roads not taken and the like…

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A waste of time. It’s too bad because there are some decent plot elements, and the viewpoint of an upper-crust black man, a law professor (as is the author) and son of a judge, with homes in DC and Martha’s Vineyard, is a welcome one. There are some dramatic moments, what with the horrific murder of the Pastor; the unjust arrest of our Professor by local police after he is attacked by thugs (reminiscent of the incident involving Henry Louis Gates); the intriguing car chase on the Vineyard; and the denouement during the hurricane. Unfortunately, any drama built into the story is muffled by the plodding narrative style. Time and again, the author tells us what this person is like, tells us what the men in his family are like, tell us what his marriage is like (over and over again) – he never shows us through dialogue or actions. The consequences of this type of writing are cardboard characters with no life in them. He tries to tie Kimmer’s affair to his own obsession with the mystery his father left behind, but, by my reading, there are problems with the marriage from the beginning of the book. I don’t believe in Kimmer, nor in Mariah, the sister obsessed with the idea that the Judge was Mariah, nor in Addison. The best characters are the law school faculty members, but even there, the relationships seem forced, as well as inconsistent, and motives do not appear to flow logically from character. I also wish the chess analogy had been more elegantly done – it seems like a fine idea tortured to fit the story. Perhaps a decent editor could have helped streamline the novel and improve the author’s style. Once there were great editors who helped writers achieve their vision – no more, it seems.

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The Future of Reading

As one who treasures and reveres books, who grew up reading and rereading the classics of childhood (Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, Little Women), I often wonder if kids will continue to read these books, or indeed any books. Thus, I was heartened by a 10-year old houseguest who came with her I-phone, of course, but also with three library books:  The Art of Racing in the Rain, Small as an Elephant , and another that she was disappointed in so I didn’t get the title. We agreed that is usually worthwhile when you enjoy an author to seek out other books by that person, but sometimes you just don’t like the other books as well.

C.L., a young person of strong opinions, was forthright about not feeling that she has to finish a book if she’s not liking it. (I should take her advice as I am still struggling through The Emperor of Ocean Park.) Despite having red hair, she was never able to get into Anne of Green Gables, and admitted to not liking “the classics.” I mentioned how all the kids have Kindles now, and she informed me that for her age group, that fad has passed. “Sure, back in third grade, a lot of kids had them, but now? No Kindles, no Nooks, they are all back to carrying regular books around.” Another of her rules for living is not to keep books. She never rereads a book, she declared, so is happy to pass them on to others. Mi caro esposo who had just moved my library of 25, or possibly more, boxes of books for me, gave me an expressive look. I am still planning to reread most of my library if I live long enough, so I was unmoved.

I read half of The Art of Racing in the Rain during C.L.’s visit, and she, saddened by my lack of a large library in my new town, generously offered to leave it for me. As it turns out, my library does have the book, so I put a hold on it and am looking forward to finishing it off, and hopefully discussing it with my bookish young friend during a future visit. In the meantime, I have a feeling that the next generation may reject some of the technological advances embraced by their elders (Facebook, for example), which may include the e-book.

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Peter Pan

Short-story Thursdays recently supplied a pair of short stories by J. M. Barrie (“A Powerful Drug” and “The Inconsiderate Waiter”). I enjoyed both, especially the latter, which is funny and charming and ultimately heart-warming.

Barrie’s whimsical writing, buoyant and sly, both cynical and not (this last insight borrowed from another SST reader), is a delight. He lets his characters show themselves, which is a writerly gift (exemplified by Jane Austen) that cannot be over-praised. So many authors pound away at their material, deadening the senses with their heavy-handed pronouncements and creaking plot machinery (sadly I’m thinking of the book I am currently reading, or enduring, “The Emperor of Ocean Park.”) In any case, thinking of Barrie got me thinking of Peter Pan and my favorite quote therein:

“What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘Wendy Moira Angela Darling,’ she replied with some satisfaction. ‘What is your name?’
‘Peter Pan.’
She was already sure that he must be Peter, but it did seem a comparatively short name.
‘Is that all?’
‘Yes,’ he said rather sharply. He felt for the first time that it was a shortish name.
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Wendy Moira Angela.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Peter gulped.
She asked where he lived.
‘Second to the right,’ said Peter, ‘and then straight on till morning.’
‘What a funny address!’
Peter had a sinking feeling. For the first time he felt that perhaps it was a funny address.

It makes me sad that children don’t read Peter Pan anymore, thanks to Disney, I guess.

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I’m not really writing about Fitzgerald, but, in fact, he and Zelda make an appearance in The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which I just finished, and they seem more interesting than the subject of the novel which is, of course, Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, and by extension, Hemingway himself. I disagree with the author’s choice to use the first-person narrative to tell Hadley’s story, it comes across as unoriginal and banal, as if she took the known facts and connected them like a dot-to-dot drawing. I started to think, yes, Hemingway was a cad, but Hadley just isn’t that interesting; in fact, without her relationship with him, why would we care about her? By contrast, Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, told in the third person, is both more nuanced and satisfying. McLain can write and there are some poignant moments as the marriage unravels (Pauline was quite a character!), but, on the whole, I couldn’t wait to get it over with. It felt to me as if the writer hit upon this great idea for a novel and then just went through the motions, not truly caring about her subject. Even Paris comes across as dull and uninviting. Enter the Fitzgeralds, with their brittle, bright spirits, adding some much-needed drama and intensity. The gatherings at Cap d’Antibe are well rendered, bringing to mind Tender is the Night. A recent New Yorker article by Giles Harvey (Cry Me A River, 032513 issue) details several recent tell-all memoirs by young published writers who went off the rails after early success. Harvey makes the point that this approach has actually led to renewed interest in and opportunities for these authors and adds that Fitzgerald tried the same tactic in 1936 when he wrote a personal essay, “The Crack-Up,” about his flagging career prospects. (Of course, Fitzgerald managed to confess his sorry state in a philosophical way, with an “urbane, self-inspecting tone,” a far cry from the contemporary examples). Within a year, he was invited to Hollywood to try, unsuccessfully as it turned out, his hand at screenwriting. Sad to think of Scott and Zelda so diminished, but the seeds of tragedy were there at Cap d’Antibes, as McLain is able to show in her novel. Perhaps she just chose the wrong subject for her talents?

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