Mixed Bag of Reviews

Over the past year, I’ve read a lot of books and would like to share some thoughts about them with you. This is the first batch, a mixed bag of good and not-so-good books.

A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende

At the end of the Spanish Civil War, refugees from Spain who had fought Franco were brought by boat to Chile. A young man, Victor, is one of them. He is grateful to be taken in by Chile. The mover behind the scenes is the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who has convinced his country to take in these exiles. The novel tells the story of Victor’s life from his service in field hospitals to waiting in refugee camps, arriving in Chile, marrying, and making friends, to the time of Salvador Allende’s term as president, and at Allende’s fall, the loss of his job and home. (Allende is her father’s relative, and not portrayed as someone she knows well.) Victor is non-political, a dedicated physician, husband, and father. The militancy and fearmongering of the right and the too-swiftly-moving reforms and arrogance of the left bring chaos to a once stable country. She describes the methods used to sow discord, a stark parallel to the current political situation in the United States. Victor and his family and others in the novel live in exile or are imprisoned during the years of Pinochet’s regime, until finally, Pinochet is gone and there is a return of civil democratic society. Different points of view are embodied in the characters. Victor and his wife even return to Spain, but find it so changed, so dismal, they realize their home is in Chile. The writing is often distanced, with a delicacy bordering on vagueness, but in several sections, it is distinct and earthy. Isabel Allende has been criticized for channeling Gabriel Garcia-Marquez but watering the style down to mediocrity. Certain passages echo many South American writers, but this book is a far cry from the dreamscapes of G-M novels. It stands as a fair-minded testament of a time in the history of Chile.

Dinner at the Center of the Earth, by Nathan Englander

A book that has promise changes midway through to focus on a fantastical relationship between a female Israeli soldier and a Palestinian operative. Instead of letting the story unfurl, showing the hidden, subversive lengths opposing sides will go to it becomes an undeveloped narrative of two unappealing people. The satire is lost in some sort of romantic fantasy. It gets sillier the closer it comes to the ending, which they both deserve. The more interesting characters are killed, imprisoned, or simply disappear, not “disappeared” but forgotten apparently. The only relatable human characters are doomed to die in despair or take the lesser-of-two-evils action. Post-modern literature, anyone?

Florida, by Lauren Groff

Groff writes about a state I know well. The better parts are about walking after dark in a neighborhood and a story of an old home by a swamp and near a university that wants to buy the land. Those were relatable. Groff’s characters not so much. They complain about living in a condo by the beach, they complain about vacationing in Paris, and on the coast of Brittany. They play around with each other’s spouses. One goofball takes off from her condo to a shack in the woods with hubby and children because she’s bored. Hubby climbs to the shack’s roof and gets a call that he must return to work, so of course he leaves them there alone. She manages to injure herself changing a light bulb. In her delirium, she thinks she hears a panther moving in the woods outside. In the daytime. That made me laugh. (She is by far her worst enemy.) Anyway, hubby returns to find her near death. Then there’s the long story of trying to write in France. Part of the sadness that permeates the book may come from the devastation of Florida’s unique landscape, of ecosystems that sustain life. In the end, she realizes that although she doesn’t love Florida, it is her home. Groff writes well enough, so a good book may yet come.

Vesper Flights, by Helen Macdonald

Macdonald has a cold and scientific view of animals and the natural world. I make the distinction between cold and scientific for a reason. Her nature is not warm and fuzzy. Her scientific observations are keen and detailed, and in other naturalists’ writing have hinted at unity with the world, but she is not comfortable. She admits the losses she has suffered and those she has observed in the non-human space have made her remote. Visits to childhood places emphasize the destruction of semi-wild and rare habitats. The lives of birds and animals have nothing to do with us, she writes, and yet they stitch us into place, our sense of place, and teach us about ourselves. We carelessly change those places to make them less habitable for wildlife and for ourselves. And so, evening song is the right theme for this book. At the same time, it is not sad, but realistically attuned to beauty and resilience, and dogged (to use that term) in communicating the importance of our relationship to the planet we inhabit.

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