Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Review: All Passion Spent

Lady Slane spent her entire life as a politician's wife, raising six children. In the wake of her husband's death she finally has time and space to attend to her own desires. At age eighty-eight Lady Slane chooses to move to her own home, and surround herself with persons of her own choosing. And what Lady Slane chooses to do is to reminisce about her life, from her marriage in 1860 to the present day. Lady Slane's children presume that their mother has descended into madness, but she holds her ground, refusing to become the doddering widow her children expect. In this novel we learn Lady Slane's history: her thwarted dreams of becoming an artist, her love for her husband, and the restrictions incumbent on Victorian political wives. The book culminates as Lady Slane faces an awakening of unexpected passion. This is a dark and contemplative novel, though there are elements of comedy as well. The Slane children all fit into comic stereotypes, and perform their allotted roles to the point of ridiculousness. These comic elements are necessary, they allow Lady Slane to be sensible, rather than cruel, in cutting herself off from her children at the end of her life. Lady Slane's long life spans the Victorian and Edwardian periods, and if the hallmark of the Victorian era was change, than Lady Slane is certainly a good model thereof. She lived through modernization, the growth of empire, and in her reflections we see the long span of her life.

Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent (The Dial Press, 1984) ISBN: 0385279760

Monday, June 29, 2009

Review: Oliver Twist

I've always been intimidated by Dickens, having heard so much about his legendary wordiness and trenchant prose. This was my first attempt to seriously read Dickens, and I was pleasantly surprised at just how readable this book is. I did notice Dickens's wordiness for approximately the first two pages, but after that I was drawn into the story. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that Dickens writes with a witty sarcasm- so much for the humorless Victorians. The story of a desperately poor orphan, Oliver Twist offers a deep and complex plot, and plenty of emotional engagement. It's hard not to feel sympathy for suffering young Oliver who, by his own admission, "hasn't a friend in the world." This novel is a book about morality, and is clearly a work of social criticism. Dickens reserves his criticism not for the wealthy, who might seem the obvious target, but for social strivers. Those attempting to raise their social standing, such as the sycophantic Bumble, and the criminal miser Fagin receive the sharpest pricks of Dickens's pen. The truly wealthy are the kindest characters in the book; they are the ones who rescue Oliver and show him true kindness. Dickens kept my attention throughout this novel, I will definitely be exploring more of his canon.

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (Wordsworth Classics, 1997) ISBN: 1853260126

Friday, June 26, 2009

Review: Shanghai Girls

This novel is a family saga, crossing two continents and nearly thirty years. Pearl Louie and her sister, Mae, were born and raised among the Shanghai elite, but with the arrival of Japanese invasion and the start of WWII, find themselves sold to Chinese-American husbands. They cross the Pacific to begin a new life with unknown relatives in Los Angeles. The novel covers Pearl and Mae's efforts to make new lives for themselves in Los Angeles, and to come to terms with their new family. Pearl discovers a world of contradictions in Los Angeles. She begins to develop an American identity, while living in a country prejudiced against her. Always critical of her mother's old-fashioned superstition, Pearl finds herself drawn to traditional ways as she faces the challenges of raising a family. While there are some triumphs for Pearl, Mae, and the rest of the Louie family, there are also many sorrows. See's ending for this saga shocked me- it was certainly not the ending I was anticipating. Overall, this novel offers a complex and engaging plot, and brought me into the world of Chinese Americans in the middle of the 20th century. Through See's work we go deep into the innermost recesses of the lives and thoughts of the Louie family. See has written a complicated epic- a story of much sorrow, but also of persistence.

Lisa See, Shanghai Girls, (Random House, 2009) ISBN: 1400067111

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Review: Children of My Heart

A novel of a young teacher in the depression-era prairies, Roy tells the stories of children from the desperately poor families of rural Manitoba. The stories are told by the protagonist, a young, unnamed teacher, who teaches at an isolated village school. Roy presents children heavily laden with the burdens of poverty, adult concerns, and adult responsibilities. It quickly becomes clear what a significant role a caring young teacher plays in the lives of these children. In many cases she is the only adult who has the luxury to treat her pupils as children. The protagonist retains youthful enthusiasm in the most trying of circumstances, until she is faced with a new kind of trial: a budding romance with a troubled teenage student. Mederic, the son of a distant father and an absent mother, is desperately in need of attention, and his young teacher is desperately in need of companionship. When she tries to reach Mederic's mind a clear affection develops between them, and this budding relationship offers few good solutions. Roy's novel is rife with sadness, but also with a sense of persistence. The desperate poverty of the 1930s immigrant prairie communities is brought into stark relief by Roy's prose; written in a lyrical style, she paints a dramatic picture.

Gabrielle Roy, Children of My Heart (McClelland and Stewart, 1979) ISBN: 0771075987

Monday, June 15, 2009

Review: Tide, Feather, Snow

In the late 1990s Miranda Weiss moved from the continental US to Homer, Alaska. This memoir chronicles Weiss's first two years in Alaska, her relationship to the land, her boyfriend, and the difficult decision of whether to stay in Alaska. Weiss had always been fascinated with Alaska, and she had worked in the wilderness before, in remote areas of national parks. But none of this prepared her for the realities of Alaska. In this memoir Weiss weaves together discussion of the natural wonders and dangers of Alaska along with her own experiences of her new life. The dramatic tides, salmon migrations, and persistent dark of winter all make for more interesting writing than one might expect of a memoir that is heavily focused on climate and weather conditions. For those of us in the lower forty-eight, some of the conditions in Alaska are likely shocking. Weiss knew more than a few people who lived without running water and indoor toilets by choice. Weiss had to ski a half-mile to and from her car in the dead of winter, donning a headlamp. Most of us can't imagine this sort of life- I surely could not. Weiss also discusses the attitudes and assumptions of Alaskans- putting high premiums on time resided in the state. Alaska has always had a reputation as the last frontier, and Weiss's memoir proves that it is just as susceptible to the sort of mythology that has characterized other American frontiers. Perhaps significant is the myth of self-sufficiency. Weiss notes that a desire for simpler lives and self-sufficiency has drawn many to Alaska, but Alaska also has more federal government involvement than just about any other state, likewise, the resettlement of Americans from other states in Alaska means that record amounts of supplies have to be flown in to the state. The contradictions are interesting, and Weiss is clearly attuned to them. It took me a few chapters to get into this book, but it ultimately drew me in. I knew very little of Alaska and I found Weiss's descriptions engaging. She does an excellent job of conveying the extremes and dangers that shape everyday life in Alaska.

Miranda Weiss, Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska (Harper, 2009) ISBN: 0061710253

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Review: The Blue Notebook

This is a deeply sad book, and an engrossing book too. The story of a child prostitute in Mumbai, Bartuk was sold into slavery by her father, and taken from her family's countryside home to Mumbai's red light district. On the 'Common Street' that becomes Bartuk's home, the children are kept in cages barely large enough for movement. They are given barely enough food to sustain life. Most horrifically, they are expected to have sex with a dozen or so men every night. It is difficult to overstate the horrors of the Common Street, and Bartuk escapes the horrors of her life by writing in her diary, a blue notebook she must keep hidden. It would be easy to become engrossed in this book merely because of the shock value. Certainly the conditions are horrific, more so because Bartuk and her friends are composite characters based on children Levine met during travels in Mumbai. But there is more literary merit to this novel than just shock, and Levine has produced a compelling protagonist and engaging plot. Bartuk's writing and quick mind sometimes disguise her youth, but the reader is constantly reminded of her age by the series of euphemisms she has developed to refer to anatomy and sexual activity. The reader is intimately aware of the precariousness of Bartuk's situation, and one in which the reader is given no definitive ending. This seems appropriate, as Bartuk's life is so precarious, so too is her fate. This novel is not just a work of literature, it is also a call to action. Bartuk is only one of many, and the author makes clear his intention to donate proceeds to children's charities. Levine has crafted a moving and unforgettable character; her story is one that will not easily be forgotten.

James Levine, The Blue Notebook (Spiegel & Grau, 2009) ISBN: 038552871X