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.

My Favorite Short Story Collections 2020

I don’t usually read short story collections but this year, especially after the Stay-At-Home orders in my state, I found the short story form fit into the patchwork of my days. Here are two I enjoyed.

Black Crow Speaks, The Short Stories of Frederick Anderson

The best of these stories, in which a black crow literally speaks, are filled with humorous insights on the human condition amid an ever-increasing debris field. Dark humor abounds, as in “Some Reading for the Departure Lounge,” where an erstwhile pilot holds a conversation with an air traffic controller; the ending can be guessed but is still a surprise.

Some stories poke fun at or explore morbid events, with goblins, killers, and phantom trains. Others like “Brighton Rock” tell the sad but truthful experience of young love, first love. In “The Making,” hope and hopelessness mix as a people near extinction and all depends on one Last Experiment.

One of my favorites is “The Small Town Trocadero,” less a story than a reflection, filled with nostalgia for a time that is past and gone, which suits the time we’re living through. Beautifully written in declarative sentences it evokes the universal experience of being young and spending time with friends.

The stories always return to the black crow, who never disappoints.

The Night Bus, Mick Canning

Several of these long short stories are of travelling through unfamiliar territory, where earth and its elements shift in form, not sure what the landmarks and other signs mean, even when taking them as guidance. There are holy places, shamans, sacrifice, doors in the desert to step through, and a dance with Krishna.

The story I liked most was “The Photograph,” set in India in the style of memoir; the poem at the end of the book, “The Night Bus,” continues the trip through India.

“The Betrayal” begins with a night bus ride to a border town in the mountains. Past and present interweave in a narrative of escape from an oppressive society, at a cost that ultimately comes due. Years later, he questions the actions he had taken, the panic he felt, and the decision he made. I was confused by the confusion of identities in this one, which detracts from its impact. However, the sense of place and displacement, of refugees fleeing and those left behind, is palpable.

Overall, this collection gives the reader the feeling of “being there” in far-flung places. At the end, a series of poems talk of the old ways and the modern world, leaving today behind as we heed the call of adventure. He recognizes that “we are walking in the footsteps of giants.” Canning is “The Collector” of images and memories, because as he writes, “the world is full of wonders, all waiting for wanderers.”

Favorite Books of 2019

Eggshells, by Caitriona Lally

Eggshells

Viv is a special needs person who is functioning in her unique way. As she says, “my life soundtrack is more of a nursery rhyme with three repeated notes.” But what a symphony she composes from these notes. Viv (or VIV or Vivian) is a great character who totally inhabits her skin and we see everything through her eyes. The humor occurs at piquant moments, elevating the narrative into a mythical realm. And she is at home in Dublin. “I like living in a city where I am mostly unknown, and going into small places where I am known.” She writes in a notebook of her daily journeys and makes lists of things she notices or likes. Her tour of Dublin is more than a spoof of James Joyce’s Ulysses. While radically different, it is just as revelatory about humanity and myth-making.

Go, Went, Gone, by Jenny Erpenbeck

Go, Went, Gone

This New York Times Notable Book 2018 and bestseller in Germany takes on one of the most controversial issues of our time. Go, Went, Gone tells the story of Richard, a widowed man and retired linguistics professor in Berlin who at first does not notice the refugees in a nearby square, but when he does, he is drawn in to learn about them. Shy and uncertain, he comes to know them and understand how they are caught in the barbed wire of laws and policies designed to reject refugees. Slowly, as Richard is enlightened, he is also emancipated from the falsehoods of politicians and populist rhetoric. You’ll have to read the book to know what he does.

Happiness, by Aminatta Forna

Happiness

Attila, an expert on PTSD, and Jean, a wildlife biologist, meet in London where Attila is speaking at a conference and Jean is conducting a study of urban foxes. Both could be discouraged by their experiences, but they draw strength from their contemplation and action. The theme of damage and resilience is introduced by the Nietzsche quote, “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” Attila comes to realize his profession of psychiatry has emphasized damage almost to the exclusion of recognizing that people can and often do overcome adversity. That people are changed by trauma is a more helpful view. The other main theme is love and the healing power of caring. Attila and Jean and several other people in the story engage in quiet acts of kindness. Through these acts, and their accompanying thoughts and emotions, people find the strength to overcome trauma. A book worth reading.

Uncertain Light, by Marion Molteno

Uncertain Light

The story begins with the kidnapping and presumed death of a U.N. Refugee worker, Rahul Khan, in the inhospitable yet alluring landscape of Central Asia. Rahul is a seasoned worker in war-torn areas, with refugees and rogue groups, a dangerous job, but his inter-personal ability has seen him through many tense situations. His loss shocks his friends and co-workers. They reflect on their relationships to him and their loved ones and begin to re-assess their lives. Meanwhile, the uncertain situation in the borderlands near Tajikistan continues. Work goes on. Two of Rahul’s co-workers, Hugo and Lance, who became his friends, struggle to continue this work. Another, Tessa, is moved into transforming her life and taking bold action. In time, the different individuals whose only connection is a man whose death has shaken them, are drawn to one another and discover the depths of their bonds. 

An Honest House: A Memoir Continued, by Cynthia Reyes

An Honest House

This sequel to A Good Home continues the intimate journey of its author and her husband as they deal with her illness and major changes in their lives. The home stands strong and almost has an eternal quality as the human beings in it struggle and strive toward health, hope, faith and joy. I admire and enjoy Reyes’ writing and highly recommend her books.