Friday, November 28, 2014

Mildred Pierce by James M Cain

Mildred Pierce by James M Cain is perhaps most familiar, not for the book itself, but the film noire classic starring Joan Crawford as the titular long-suffering mother.  So iconic is this film, Carol Burnett did a wonderful spoof of it on her variety show but that didn’t keep HBO from releasing a mini-series version starring Kate Winslet. The mini-series is much more true to the novel than the classic film. 

Cain is best known for writing hard-boiled detective novels so, on the surface of things, this novel seems to be a sharp departure.  Opening during the Great Depression, Mildred Pierce is supporting her family by baking pies.  Fed up with her husband’s inability to help, she kicks them out of their home and has to find a way to make a means for herself and their two daughters.  She does all right for herself, in spite of her circumstances, but it is her relationship with her elder daughter, Veda, that is the emotional force in this novel.

In a way, Veda fulfills the role of femme fatale, becoming a source of obsession for her mother, Mildred.  None of the screen versions does justice to the possessive nurturing that perverts the mother/daughter relationship.  Some of the nuance of this is not lost in Winslet’s performance but, while reading the novel, I found myself cringing at Mildred’s desperation, her relentless drive to appease her manipulative and dishonest daughter.  So, for all that this is no detective novel, it still fulfills some of the “underbelly of society” laid bare.  Mildred of the novel is perhaps less sympathetic than Winslet’s interpretation while also being far less pathetic than Crawford’s. 

If you are only familiar with Mildred Pierce from the classic film, this novel will surprise you because it is both familiar and so very different.  The HBO mini-series is true to the novel, blunting some of the harder edges, making at least Mildred a somewhat more likeable person.  The novel is a revelation.  I enjoyed reading it very much.  Far more than I did Dashiell Hammett’s novels when I read them as a teen.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

There Once Lived a Mother . . . by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (trans. Anna Summers)

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (translated by Anna Summers) is a collection of three novellas, the first being the longest while the other two are more like short stories in length.  With an introduction by the translator, this book is very slender, a quick but uneasy read.  Don’t read the introduction before you read the stories unless you don’t mind knowing how a story will end. 

“The Time is Night” is the first story about a grandmother, Anna, who is a poet subsisting as she tries to keep food on her table for herself and her grandson.  We meet Anna and Tima as she seeks charity from others who are themselves struggling.  Through the first person narrative, the reader soon comes to see Anna’s complexity. She is a long-suffering artist who seems enamored with her martyr status, sacrificing everything for the sake of others while never acknowledging her own role in her dire circumstances. If she is not necessarily likable, she is at least recognizable, reflecting the worst in ourselves.

“Chocolates With Liqueur,” according to the translator’s introduction, is an homage to the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and it works perfectly at that level. Lelia is married to a brutal man and fears for herself and the safety of her children.  What hope she has for survival is desperately stifled by a system that makes it impossible for her to do anything that could protect any of them, leading to a climax that is truly reminiscent of the best of Poe.

“Among Friends” concludes the collection with another first person narrative about a mother who describes the weekly gatherings of some longtime friends, the curious intimacies that develop over time. The unnamed narrator is herself married and a mother, but her marriage is falling apart, as is the center that holds the friends together.  Serving as both an indictment of the bourgeoisie attitude of the intelligentsia, this short story creates a striking claustrophobic sense of doom, culminating in a startling conclusion.   

These three stories are well written, evocative in their starkness, drawing a curtain back on life in Soviet Russia.  There is nothing comfortable or comforting about these stories and yet they draw you in, invite you to see the hateful foibles of humanity even as you want to turn away from what is perhaps too familiar. This is humanity at its most honest.  And its most tragic because it isn’t dramatic or earth-shattering, just small lives that make ripples on the reader’s hearts nonetheless.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar

Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar is a surprising novel that focuses on the Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers that included such notables as Duncan Grant, Henry Lamb, E. M. Forster, and the titular Vanessa Bell (née Stephen) and her sister Virginia Woolf. 

The novel is predominantly written from the perspective of Vanessa herself in journal entries.  Although there’s no evidence that Vanessa actually kept a diary, Parmar does a beautiful job of not only infusing her narrator’s voice with eloquence and poetry, she creates a fully rounded character, a woman with a complicated history and self-doubt.  Interspersed are also letters, postcards, telegrams, and other missives sent from one person to another. In fact, the novel begins with a letter sent to “Nessa” by her sister Virginia, a short one that establishes a tone for the sister’s relationship before immediately moving back in time to when the two sisters and their two brothers were living together in London.

I had not realized how risqué it was for these young women to have other young men in their homes.  Had anyone pointed it out to me, I would have thought, “Oh but of course.”  Nonetheless, the men and women are striving together to evolve beyond the accepted Victorian social construct, as evidenced not only in their intimate intellectual gatherings but also in the literature and art they created.  Of course, none of the men and women in the group could realize how pivotal a time it was.  They were all just living their lives.

Oh and their lives are fascinating.  Parmar alludes to some of the more salacious stories of the Stephen’s family without making them the focus.  Some scholars believe that there was some incest within the family and that this, along with an obvious genetic predisposition, resulted in Virginia Woolf being so emotionally damaged.  Although this informs some of the interactions the characters experience, this back story does not define the novel.  Instead, the author leaves such things in the past and maneuvers her characters on the stage of her narrative in surprising ways, always sticking close to the historical facts, such as they are known through the many journals and letters that actually were written and survived.

I don’t know how to praise this novel enough. It was almost impossible to put down and I learned a few things about the Vanessa and her sister’s relationship of which I was unaware.  Most of the characters are as complex as you would expect them to be, with only minor characters remaining two-dimensional and, therefore, of little interest.  This is not the first novel I’ve read about the two.   I read and did not especially enjoy Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers. I hope anyone who read that novel will choose to read this one because it is, in my opinion, the superior one. If you haven’t read the other, read this novel and skip the other altogether and read Mrs Dalloway, if you haven’t done so already. Heck!  Even if you have read it already, Woolf's novel merits multiple readings.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

The Marriage Game by Alison Weir is a novel by a Tudor historian who knows more about Elizabeth I than most people forget.  Drawing on her knowledge, she focuses this novel on one aspect of Elizabeth’s reign—the push to get the queen married and secure the Tudor line. Without bogging down the story with a lot of details that lead up to the events of the novel, the author is able to focus on the personal life of Elizabeth with the point-of-view being dominated by herself, occasionally shifting to other characters including, naturally enough, Robert Dudley and William Cecil as well as a few others. 

Weir chooses to focus particular on the romance between the queen and Dudley, leaving the political turmoil that followed the rapid fire reigns of two half-siblings as a backdrop.  However, political alliances made in a marriage bed often come to the forefront as Elizabeth’s counselors pressure her to make a choice between a variety of suitors.  Ultimately, Elizabeth’s emotional scars seem to be her impetus for not making a decision, playing one kingdom against another as various nations strive to bind England to a foreign power.

Arguably, to write a more rounded story would have resulted in a cumbersome novel that tried to include too much—the personal with the public, the political with the private.  If anyone could have done this, Weir, with her impressive knowledge of the many power-players, could have easily been inclusive.  Instead, in focusing on Elizabeth’s fears about marriage, and on her decades long flirtation with Dudley, creates an Elizabeth who is not only mostly vulnerable but often driven more by her fear and vanity than any true intelligent manipulation of both her circumstances and the people around her.

Having read several of Weir’s biographies and even a previous novel, I was somewhat disappointed in this novel.  There are several things that made it more difficult for me.  For one thing, Weir’s nonfiction is brilliantly written. It is easy to forget that one is supposedly reading “dry history.”  And therein lies another potential reason for my disappointment because, in narrowing down her story’s focus she may have kept the novel from evolving into a tome but also removed some of the drama that defined Elizabeth’s reign. And while I was put off by some of the anachronistic words (e.g. “tetch” was not introduced into the English language until 1590 but used decades earlier in the novel’s chronology), the editing itself seems to be flawed.  It is not unusual for historians to repeat details to reinforce to the reader how one event influences another.  While effective in a nonfiction book, it is tedious in the novel.  Throughout the book, one of the characters will say something and, a page or two later, will say the same thing verbatim. I don’t know if this is because Weir was drawing on primary sources for precise quotes (which would not surprise me in the least) or if she, and her editor, simply didn’t notice that these things were already said a page or more before.  Regardless, it is something that could and should be easily caught during revisions.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the novel infinitely more than any other Tudor based novel I have read.  Unlike some of the other authors out there who seem to have gained unmerited popularity, Weir does not allow gossip or salacious stories to drive the drama of narrative.  Instead, she trusts the very real drama of the time to compel the reader to turn the page. While I may have preferred a more fully rounded fictional exploration of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, I appreciate the care that Weir puts into her work and hope that someday she will choose to put as much weight on a woman’s head as on her heart for, if any woman in history deserves to have her story told in all its glory, then surely it is Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England.   

Monday, November 24, 2014

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz is another in the ever growing list of banned books.  So what are the offensive elements?  Well, the usual guilty parties.  Drugs.  Language.  Sex.  And homosexuality. 

Oh but this is a lovely novel and it makes me sad to think that young readers out there are being warned off reading it because of some over-protective, narrow-minded parents.  For one thing, how often are children in young adult novels allowed to have a real family?  Think about it.  Even those characters who live at home with one or more parents, you rarely see the protagonist interact with the parents, except maybe to be grounded or obstructed in some minor way.  However, in this luscious novel, Ari (short for Aristotle) has a loving, if complicated, relationship with both of his parents.  When he meets Dante, they seem to be polar opposites.  However, like Ari, Dante has a loving relationship with his parents and both boys are Mexican, adding a much needed layer of diversity. 

The boys become very close, spending the summer swimming, getting to know one another, and mostly staying out of trouble.  Dante, unlike Ari, is an open book but Ari has reasons for being more secretive; he comes from a family weighed down with untold stories.  Through Dante, Ari is introduced to literature and poetry.  But their differences begin to drive a wedge between them and, when summer ends, things have irrevocably changed for both of them.

The novel is done a disservice in being poorly edited by the publisher, with some sentences missing a word and others having extra words.  As frustrating as this can be in a good novel, it is all the more unforgivable in a novel with as much beauty and poetry as this one.  There are elegant metaphors and subtle uses of foreshadowing.  The author is a master and has written not just another young adult novel but a truly remarkable piece of literature.  There were times I chuckled and more than once I got a little choked up.  At the novel’s close, I even had tears in my eyes.

I can’t remember the last time I cried over a book I was reading.  That is how deeply I was affected by this novel which I obviously highly recommend.

Monday, November 3, 2014

How To Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

 How to Build A Girl by Caitlin Moran is a young adult novel I expect will quickly find itself on some banned book list here in the United States which is a good thing because hopefully more young women (and men) will read it if it is “tainted” with accusations of content that includes:  sex, drugs, alcohol, “offensive” language.  There’s probably more that will offend the type of adults who are offended by young adult literature that is honest, bold, and delightful.

The novel is told in the first person voice of Johanna Morrigan and the very first scene is an in-your-face moment of characterization.  She is lying in bed beside her younger brother who sleeps soundly while she masturbates.  Uncomfortable to read, it is without a doubt nothing like I’ve ever read before.  The rest of her family is gradually introduced—an older brother, twin infant brothers, an alcoholic father, and a mother struggling with postpartum depression.  They live in a less than ideal neighborhood, stuck in a cycle of poverty that fuels her dreams of something better.   

The novel is overflowing with pop culture references, although some of them are incorrect, which may or may not be intentional, because Johanna is all about trying on new ideas and even a whole new persona.  After an embarrassing moment on television, she rejects everything she is, renaming herself as Dolly Wilde, changing how she dresses, and taking the kind of risks that only come with inexperience. 

There are other flaws with the novel, with many characters which sort of come and go, situations likewise seemingly occur to simply give Johanna/Dolly an opportunity to have an experience to amuse the reader.  But by the novel’s end, there seemed to be more of a pattern than I initially assumed.  About ¾ of the way through the novel, I felt the narrative was unraveling, even falling apart, that the author was losing control of the story when Moran was actually setting up for things later in the novel, parallel moments, experiences that inform others, and, in the end, as troubling as some of the protagonist’s story may be, the conclusion is not contrived and completely gratifying.
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