Wednesday, November 15, 2017

EXIT WEST by MOHSIN HAMID (2017)

Exit West begins as a realistic look at the effects of a civil war on the residents of an unnamed city. Nadia and Saeed meet in a night school class just as the unrest is about to start. They begin a tentative love affair, but as the violence escalates they are forced into a premature intimacy for their own protection. This first section of the book is intense and powerful, picturing in detail as it does the plight of ordinary people caught in the middle of warring sides.

But then the author launches into magical realism, and the novel unexpectedly becomes something else altogether. Nadia and Saeed begin hearing of doorways that open onto safer places, and when the mayhem and danger become overwhelming they finally feel that their only safe choice is to leave their homeland and seek safety in another country. They step through a doorway and find themselves immediately on a Greek island in a refugee camp.

Doorway after doorway follows, as Nadia and Saeed try to find a place where they can forge a future. In country after country they face problems from those natives residents who resist having to accommodate immigrants, however unfortunate they may be. They are welcomed nowhere. Along the way, the couple's tenuous bond becomes increasingly fragile.

Throughout the course of the novel, it becomes clear that this is in reality a fable of the immigrant experience. The love story of Nadia and Saeed, which would seem at the beginning to be the focus of the novel, is merely illustrative of the havoc in the personal lives of people who are cast adrift by circumstances.

As a fable, this novel is highly successful, but as a fable it necessarily lacks much involvement in the personalities of the characters, which negates emotional involvement for the reader. This is a "head" book, not a "heart" book. It is, by the way, also wonderfully written.

I would recommend this novel to all Anglo Saxon Americans who want to ship all the immigrants back to where they came from. I think they could use a little dose of empathy.


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Exit West was short listed in 2017 for England's Booker Prize. That prize was won by Lincoln in the Bardo. This is a significantly better book. Take my word for it.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

QUEEN LUCIA by E.F. BENSON (1920)

This delightful English novel is a satirically humorous look at the upper class residents of a small village outside of London. The accepted leader of this group of the leisured rich is Emmeline Lucas, known at her own request as La Lucia. Aided by her husband Peppino and her faithful apostle Georgie, she sets the standard for all things fashionable and cultural, with the rest as her faithful followers. She is the queen of her small realm until the arrival of a famous opera singer who, without meaning to or realizing she has done so, steals the limelight and reveals Lucia as the pretentious bully that she is.

Only the British seem to be adept at this style of satire that is not biting, but gentle and fond. We recognize the ridiculousness of Lucia's pretentiousness but feel sorry for her when it is revealed for all to see. This book (the first of a series) reminds me very much of the Jeeves and Wooster books of P.G. Wodehouse. These upper class folks may be clueless, but they are lovable anyway.

I laughed and laughed while reading this. I recommend it for those times when your mind could use some rest and is needful of pure entertainment.

Friday, November 10, 2017

FOUNDING BROTHERS by JOSEPH ELLIS (2000)

Joseph Ellis brings to life the turbulent years following the birth of our nation by concentrating on six episodes involving the founders: Hamilton and Burr's deadly duel, Washington's farewell address following his second term of office, the shifting political partnerships during the John Adams administration and the enduring partnership between Adams and his wife Abigail, the debate about where to place a permanent capital, Ben Franklin's attempt to force Congress to confront the issue of slavery, and the years' long correspondence between Adams and Jefferson after their retirements.

While telling us what happened, Ellis also reveals aspects of the characters of the participants involved. Washington and Adams come across in the most flattering light, while Jefferson and Burr (of course) do not appear so admirable. Benjamin Franklin is recognized for his courageous condemnation of slavery, but the rest of his career in government is revealed as not as important as I had previously thought. Nobody, except Washington, liked Hamilton. He is pictured as honest and principled, but extremely tactless and outspoken when he should have kept his mouth shut. Burr was a womanizer who appeared to have few principles. Jefferson was apparently two-faced and seemed capable of believing his own lies. For example, he paid a newspaperman to publish lies about Adams and vehemently denied it when confronted by Adams. When the reporter later released letters that Jefferson had sent proving that he did pay to have his rival slandered, Jefferson acted completely surprised. Still, Adams eventually forgave him.

New things I learned: the placement of the capital in Washington, D.C. was a political deal to make Virginians happy; Congress did not even want to discuss the issue of slavery, knowing that it would be divisive and fearing the loss of coherence of the Union; from the very beginning, states were threatening to succeed when their wishes were not granted; the conflict between the North and South was not just about slavery but also concerned the difference between an emphasis on agriculture and an emphasis on manufacturing; the current mistrust of immigrants and the desire of the government to shut up its critics is nothing new--the Alien and Sedition Acts during Adams' term dealt with the same issues; Adams and Jefferson both died within 5 hours of each other on July 4 on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (not important, but fascinating).

Most others may already have known all that. I have been remiss most of my life by not being more aware of the actual details of the history of my country. I am resolved to do better from now on

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

HISTORY OF WOLVES by EMILY FRIDLUND (2017)

In the usual coming-of-age novel, the grown-up emerges as wiser and more self-aware as a result of youthful experiences. That's not true of this one. The narrator, writing as a 37-year-old woman, is as broken and lonely as she was when she was 15, when the main action takes place. The tone is one of almost Gothic doom. We know not to expect a happily-ever-after ending.

Madeline, more usually called Linda (or Commie or Freak by schoolmates), lives in an isolated cabin with a couple who may or may not be her real parents, the only remnants of a failed commune. Her parents are distant and her schoolmates torment her. The one teacher who seems to like her turns out to be a pedophile, and even he rejects her advances. When a young mother and her 4-year-old son move across the lake and she is hired to be a part-time babysitter, she finally feels that she has found a place for herself in a family. But then the father of the family arrives, and it becomes increasingly apparent that something dark is going on behind the cheerful family facade.

Fridlund shows herself to be particularly adept in her vivid descriptions of the Minnesota landscape, which reflects the coldness and bleakness of her narrator's life. Linda appears to equate herself with the wolves, who she says, "have nothing at all to do with humans, actually. If they can help it, they avoid them." After her experiences as a child and teenager, that is exactly the way she chooses to live her life.

I have only one quarrel with this fascinating and well-done novel. We know from the very beginning that a little boy named Paul dies. We have to wait until almost the end to find out how and why. Unfortunately, so much tension has been built up by the time the secrets are revealed that the answers are rather anti-climactic.

I highly recommend this book. It was short-listed for England's Booker Prize.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

MANHATTAN BEACH by JENNIFER EGAN (2017)

I was surprised at this novel because it is nothing like Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. That book is experimental in structure (even including a Power Point presentation), highly inventive, and satirical in tone. I thus expected something similar, but was disappointed to find that this is instead a realistic historical story, with a bit of mystery thrown in. It is interesting, though not a page-turner, and it is well executed for what it is, but what it is turns out to be less than intriguing as to plot or character.

The plot revolves around three different characters and their stories: Anna Kerrigan, whose father had disappeared years ago, works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard during World War II to support her mother and mentally and physically handicapped sister. She stubbornly fights to become the only female diver in a ship repair crew. As an adult, she once again meets Dexter Styles, whose home she had visited with her father when she was 12. Dexter is an underworld figure who has risen to surface respectability through marriage into a prestigious political family. And then there's the story of the absent father, who did what he felt he had to do to support and protect his family. Their stories intertwine, but somehow still seem disconnected. The mystery (what happened to the father?) is predictably solved. The characters seem flat, stock characters out of The Sopranos or suchlike.

I would not be so critical of this book if I had not expected so much. It is a competently executed conventional novel. It is moderately entertaining. However, it is not in any way outstanding.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

BEHIND THE SCENES by ELIZABETH KECKLEY (1868)

Elizabeth (Lizzie) Keckley was a free black woman who became Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker and later her close friend. This is a short memoir of her early life as a slave, before she bought her own freedom, and of her years in the White House, as seamstress and companion, and afterwards, when she aided Mrs. Lincoln following the assassination of the President.

Keckley's years as a slave are only briefly recounted; contrary to most slave narratives, she remembers her owners fondly, for the most part. She acknowledges the injustice of slavery, particularly the cleavage of families, but has little complaint with the way she was treated. As a free woman, she sewed for some of Washington's most powerful, including Mrs. Jefferson Davis and Mrs. Robert E. Lee. She developed a friendship with Mrs. Lincoln, who was shunned by the Washington elite and thus had few close friends while her husband was president. Keckley is obliquely critical of the President's wife for her profligate spending, but does not relate any indications of mental illness, which have been claimed by critics of the time and by historians.

Elizabeth Keckley was criticized by many at the time of this book's appearance for betraying Mary Lincoln's confidence. It would be interesting to find out if their friendship continued after the publication.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

LINCOLN by GORE VIDAL (1984)

This is a fictionalized biography of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. It is purportedly very accurate in regard to historical events, although some historians have taken issue with several of the details, such as the fact that Lincoln was afflicted with syphilis in his young manhood. It is so detailed as to be tedious at times, and it is certainly overly long (700+ pages). If I had not read a couple of non-fiction books about Lincoln just previous, I believe I would have become bogged down by this fictional treatment.

One aspect of Lincoln's life was new to me--that his wife Mary Todd Lincoln behaved so bizarrely. I will read further non-fiction about her before I take Vidal's accounts of her actions as fact, though if he is to be believed, it would appear that she was actually mentally ill, not just temperamental.

Not just from this book, but also from the other Lincoln books I have read I have been made aware that Lincoln was not quite the abolitionist I had imagined him to be. His primary object always was to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation, when it came later in the war, was a tactical decision more than a decision of conscience. He did believe slavery was wrong and that it should not be allowed to spread to new territories, but he had serious doubts about the feasibility of immediate freedom for all slaves and about the prospects for integration of thousands of freed slaves into white society.

I would recommend that a reader wanting to know more about Abraham Lincoln read one of the excellent non-fiction biographies or histories rather than this fictionalized treatment. Contrary to what one would expect, it is boring in comparison to the non-fiction I have read treating the same subject.