Nina's Reading Blog

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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

The First Love

Posted by nliakos on December 29, 2019

by Beverly Lewis (Bethany House 2018)

Set in the Amish country of Pennsylvania, like Beverly Lewis’ other novels, The First Love is the most religious of Lewis’ books that I have encountered so far. It turns out her father was an evangelist who held revival meetings in Lancaster County, just like the tent meetings Maggie Esh is tempted by in this novel. Lewis writes, “My own father pitched a large tent not far from the location of the crusade Maggie Esh attends. There, for two consecutive summers, he conducted six-week evangelistic meetings where various evangelists preached the gospel and the sick were healed by God’s miraculous power.” The first love alluded to in the title refers to the love of Jesus that Maggie discovers in the tent meetings. Nevertheless, Lewis respects her character’s choice to remain in her Old Order Amish community. Maggie ventures out, is changed by the meetings she attends, and even makes friends with the evangelist’s son, but ultimately, she goes ahead with her plan to be baptized into her Amish church.

The book is also about Maggie’s struggle with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. She longs to be pain-free and strong so that she can pull her weight at home and dream of marrying and having her own family. She tries many remedies and dares to flirt with the idea of faith healing (apparently not part of the Amish tradition). One remedy appears to be effective for weeks on end, but in the end disappoints her as all the others have. Fortunately the young man Maggie loves accepts her as she is, after 282 pages of wondering if they will ever get together. (Spoiler Alert: Then, in a puzzling Epilogue, an older Maggie recalls how her husband and father prayed over her and laid hands on her, and how two days later, she became pain-free and lived happily ever after. After all those pages devoted to the Amish resistance to faith healing, this bit was a bit too facile for me. Did Lewis just want to include a non-Amish miracle in her story?)

The final plot line concerns the Esh children’s difficulty accepting Rachel, their father’s new wife, their Mamm having recently died of rheumatic heart disease. Lewis writes not only from Maggie’s perspective but also from Rachel’s. Rachel is deeply in love with her much-older husband Joseph, and her story involves her struggle to earn the love and respect of Joseph’s older children, especially 14-year-old Leroy, who is suffering from his inability to keep a promise he made to his dying mother, but also Grace and Maggie, 16 and 17-18 respectively, who are courteous and obedient but distant with their Schtiefmudder.

It all turns out all right. Lewis’ novels have replaced the murder mysteries I used to enjoy. They aren’t deep, but they are interesting. Her descriptions of the Plain folk’s simple life provide an escape from our world of technology.

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Catching up with Mma Ramotswe

Posted by nliakos on December 21, 2019

I used to listen to the audio books of Alexander McCall Smith’s delicious No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series every year as they came out. Somehow, retirement got in the way; even before I retired in 2015, I started taking the bus to work and reading books instead of listening to them. So I somehow forgot about Mma Ramotswe, Mma Makutsi, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and all the rest. But now I have Libby! Libby (for Mac devices look here)is a new (for me, anyway) app I can use to borrow e-books from my public library. I got a lesson from one of the librarians last week, and when I got home, j had the idea to check for new No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency titles. There are six–one for each year that I missed. So while I wait for Birds, Beasts, and Relatives by Gerald Durrell, I am catching up with Mma Ramotswe and friends.

The first one I got was The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon (2013). In it, Mma Makutsi has a baby, and Mma Ramotswe is forced to acknowledge just how much she depends on her secretary turned assistant detective turned associate detective. As that story unfolds, the agency deals with two new cases: a contested inheritance and a case of intimidation. Meanwhile, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is persuaded that he should help his wife more at home–that he should be a more “modern” husband. To this end, he attempts to mash raw potatoes and other interesting recipes, and Precious needs to be very diplomatic. (Nov. 11)

The second one was The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Cafe (2014). That what Mma Makutsi decides to call her new restaurant. Uncharacteristically, she allows herself to be duped by some shady characters and ends up with a chef who can’t cook and a waitstaff who delight in being rude to the customers. Her nemesis, Violet Sephotho, then writes a scathing review of the new restaurant (but probably anyone else would have written a similarly poor review because the restaurant was really a disaster), but Mma Ramotswe and Mma Potokwane manage to sort everything out in the final chapter. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is forced to let Charlie, the eternal apprentice, go due to a shrinking workload, and Mma Ramotswe feels obligated to offer him a job with the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, even though she can’t afford it, either. Of course, Charlie and Mma Makutsi are constantly in each other’s faces as Charlie becomes first an apprentice detective, then an assistant secretary, then a clerk and finally again a secretary at the agency. And Mma Ramotswe handles an intriguing case about an Indian woman with amnesia. (Nov. 14)

Number 3 in my catch-up series of Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books is The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine (2015). In this one, Mma Ramotswe is pressured by Mma Makutsi to take a vacation, which she has never done before. Reluctantly, she gives up the reins of the agency to Mma Makutsi (despite her misgivings), who will be assisted by ex-mechanic apprentice Charlie (who has been laid off by Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and subsequently hired by Mma Ramotswe) and by Mr. Polopetsi, the former pharmacist and now part-time chemistry teacher who used to assist the ladies in their work and who comes back to volunteer his services while Mma Ramotswe is away. But Mma Ramotswe is unsuited to vacations. She feels at loose ends and is tormented by the desire to know what is going on at the agency without her. When Mr. Polopetsi secretly consults her about a difficult case he claims Mma Makutsi has foisted off on him, Mma Ramotswe has the excuse she needed to get back in the game, but it must be done delicately, so as not to insult the famously prickly Mma Makutsi. In the end, Mma Makutsi proves to be more capable than Mma Ramotswe perhaps realized. Along the way, Mma Ramotswe rescues a little boy trapped in an abusive home and manages to reunite him with his mother, as well as to settle him at the Orphan Farm with Mms Potokwane. (Nov. 23)

Precious and Grace (2016) shines a light on the changing relationship between Mma Precious Ramotswe, owner and founder of the Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and her partner (formerly secretary, then assistant detective), Grace Makutsi. Mild-mannered Precious seeks to avoid conflict (although we know from previous novels that she is not afraid to confront troublemakers and even to threaten them in order to force them to do the right thing), while Grace seems to thrive on it, and she has a dangerous habit of speaking her mind before she thinks through all the possible consequences. Precious keeps an open mind while Grace tends to leap to conclusions and has a hard time admitting that she might be wrong. These differences show up as they try to help a Canadian woman named Susan locate her former nanny, Rosie, and the house where her family lived in Gaborone. After an announcement in the newspaper brings not one but many women claiming to be the Rosie who took care of Susan, Grace assumes that they are all liars, while Precious is inclined to believe the first one.  Precious and Grace make plans to attend a dinner honoring Botswana’s Woman of the Year, with Grace’s longtime enemy, Violet Sepotho, in contention for the honor. Meanwhile, Mr. Polopetsi has gotten himself into hot water by investing in a pyramid scheme, leaving Precious to sort it out, and Fanwell runs over a stray dog, which decides to adopt him. Fanwell cannot take the dog to the place where he lives with his uncle’s family in very close quarters, and Precious tries to figure out a solution, while Grace insists that dogs do not have souls, so it doesn’t really matter what happens to the dog. The most challenging case is that of Susan and Rosie, which turns out to be not as it first appeared, the grateful adult child returning to thank the beloved nanny. But in the end, the dog finds a home; Mr Polopetsi makes amends to those he has cluelessly swindled and even finds the perfect part-time job in the police crime lab; and Susan makes her peace with the past. Moreover, Grace finds herself able to see Violet Sepotho’s triumph in a new light, thanks to Precious’ gentle reasoning.

I started The House of Unexpected Sisters (2017) while I was not yet finished with Precious and Grace because I was listening to P&G on CD book (reveling in the unhurried narration of Lisette Lecat), which takes longer. When I read the text, I tend to rush through it, even though I try not to; it’s the same bad habit which renders me incapable of appreciating most poetry. Anyway, the main cases in Unexpected Sisters involve a woman dismissed from her job on false pretenses and Mma Ramotswe’s discovery of a hitherto unknown woman who shares her last name, which is quite rare. Underlying these story lines is the infamous Note Mokoti, former husband and abuser of Mma Ramotswe, back in Gaborone from South Africa for unknown reasons and causing Mma Ramotswe a great deal of concern. Of these, the most interesting is the mysterious Mingie Ramotswe, who (SPOILER ALERT!) turns out to be Mma Ramotswe’s half-sister, and due to a clerical error, Mma Ramotswe’s image of her “daddy” as a perfect human being is severely shaken. She rejects Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s attempts to help her as she struggles with renewed grief and loss. McCall Smith quietly includes the issue of same-sex marriage/partnership as a part of this story line. (Mma Ramotswe, of course, harbors no anti-gay prejudice.) The case of the fired sales clerk is resolved when Mma Ramotswe discovers that the boss has been straying with the vile Violet Sepotho and goes to talk to his wife; and she is spared having to confront Note Mokoti by the ever-helpful Mma Potokwane, who reports that he has turned over a new leaf and left Gaborone again.

I read The Colours of All the Cattle (2018) in three different formats. First I borrowed the e-book on Libby. Then I tried out a new technology called Playaway  from the library: a little plastic device about the size of an iPod holding one audiobook. The borrower provides earbuds and a AAA battery. The controls were simple and Lisette Lecat’s reading delightful as always, but unfortunately the device did not work as intended. It kept shutting down, and each time it did that, I had to restore my speed and volume settings. Then it stopped going back to the place it had stopped, requiring that I search over and over for my place in the book. Way more frustrating than I was prepared to deal with! Then I forgot I already had the e-book on my tablet, so I borrowed an old-fashioned book. I finished the book both ways. You can believe I will tell the library staff about my less-than-ideal experience with Playaway when I return it!

The story features three interwoven plots. One of these is the case of Dr. Marang, a kindly doctor from Mma Ramotswe’s home village of Mochudi, who was struck by a hit-and-run driver and badly injured, leading to many expenses for which he would like to be compensated. Mma Ramotswe is at first confounded by the seeming impossibility of finding the driver of a car the good doctor could only describe as “blue”, but with the assistance of Charlie, she is able to resolve the case satisfactorily. The second plot is the relationship between Charlie and a beautiful young lady named Queenie-Queenie, daughter of the owner of a large trucking business. Queenie-Queenie hides her family’s wealth and prestige from Charlie, but when he finds out, he becomes discouraged, believing that her family will never allow her to marry such a poor man without cattle for a bride-price. Perhaps the main story involves Mma Ramotswe’s adventure into local politics when she allows herself to be persuaded to run for a seat on the Gaborone City Council by Mma Potokwane, who opposes the construction of the Big Fun Hotel next to the cemetery where her mother is interred, and by Mma Makutsi, whose main goal is to ensure the defeat of Violet Sephotho, her longtime enemy, who is also running (or standing, as they say in Botswana) for the seat. Mma Ramotswe immediately regrets having agreed to stand for the Council and does her best to back out of her commitment, but in the end, she goes through with it (although she is incapable of voting for herself, which feels horribly immodest to her). Despite (or perhaps because of) an exceedingly modest campaign slogan (“I am not much, but I promise you I’ll do my best.”), she wins the election but is neatly rescued from actually having to serve on the Council once Mma Potokwane’s wish to stop the hotel construction has been fulfilled. That’s typical of the series: the solutions are invariably easy and neat. The first person you suspect is often the culprit, unlike in more traditional mysteries. (If I were a cataloguer in a library, I might not classify these as mysteries at all!) What makes the books so delightful is not how the crimes are solved or the mysteries untangled; it is what happens in between–the simple conversations between husbands and wives, or Mma Ramotswe’s thoughts as she seeks to escape from the world of politics she is suddenly thrust into. These make Botswana seem like a simpler place than the one we inhabit, even though it also has corrupt politicians, dishonest people, and schemers.

I’ve just discovered that there is a 2019 book in the series, but Libby can’t guarantee I will get it before 13 weeks, so I’m going to go ahead and publish this post!

 

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The Fifth of March: A Story of the Boston Massacre

Posted by nliakos on October 17, 2019

by Ann Rinaldi (Harcourt 1993)

This is the story of young Rachel Marsh, an indentured servant working as a nanny in the home of John and Abigail Adams in 1768-70. Well-researched, with most of its characters based on actual people, The Fifth of March provides a front-row seat to the events leading up to and following the Boston “Massacre”, which is widely seen as a crucial factor in the beginning of the Revolutionary War. As Rachel narrates the story, we gain an understanding of how some of the colonists began to see themselves as just plain “Americans” rather than subjects of the British Crown, as the concept of individual liberty began to take root.   Along with her friends, her employers, and her employers’ friends and associates, Rachel must decide whether to cast her lot with “the rabble” or with the soldiers sent to keep the peace in a turbulent time. We come to appreciate the British side of the story: how the British Captain Preston tried valiantly to avert violence while the Americans insulted, cursed, lobbed objects at, and otherwise provoked the young British soldiers.

Rachel’s choice is complicated by the fact that she has befriended one of the soldiers, Matthew Kilroy (also a historical figure), thereby jeopardizing her relationship with the Adamses. This is the fictional story woven into the historical events. Even Rachel Marsh’s fictional character is based on an actual person of that name whom the Adamses employed. Rinaldi takes this character, about whom essentially nothing is known, and creates her protagonist.

I found this to be a balanced description of what it might have felt like to live in Boston during this period a few years before the Revolutionary War.

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Fool’s Girl

Posted by nliakos on August 30, 2019

by Celia Rees ( Scholastic, 2010)

Celia Rees has taken Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night and written a new chapter of the saga of Viola and Sebastian, the shipwrecked twins who emerged from the sea to wed royalty in the Adriatic dukedom of Illyria (in present-day Croatia). In Rees’s imaginings, Violetta, the daughter of Viola and Duke Orsin, flees a conquered Illyria with her mother’s fool, Feste, and her father’s young page, Guido. They eventually come to London in search of Illyria’s greatest treasure, a holy relic stolen by the evil Malvolio, and appeal to a youngish Will Shakespeare to help them.  (Rees writes in the Author Note, “I wanted to write about Shakespeare before he was Shakespeare, when he was just Will from Warwickshire, trying to make a living in the competitive and precarious world of Elizabethan theatre.”)

Stubborn, brave Violetta; bawdy, multi-talented Feste; cruel, deranged Malvolio; faithful Maria; handsome but mysterious Stephano; clever Will Shakespeare, walking a political tightrope, trying to do his duty without compromising his friends or his company of players; Will’s wise and patient wife Anne; the Lord and Lady of the Wood; and more are some of the characters that Rees builds into believable people in this tale of romance, adventure, and intrigue. There is plenty of action and excitement before we reach the inevitable happy ending. I think Shakespeare would have been pleased.

 

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The Refugees

Posted by nliakos on May 9, 2019

by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove 2017; University of Maryland College Park First Year Book 2018-2019)

I’ve been dipping into this collection of short stories about refugees in America for about a year, one story at a time, in between reading other things.

Viet Thanh Nguyen fled Viet Nam with his family at the age of four; his stories are informed by his own experiences as a refugee. I will briefly summarize each story.

The narrator of Black-eyed Women is a Vietnamese-American, one of the so-called “Boat People” who fled the country after the end of the war. Not unusually, the boat was taken over by pirates who raped all of the women and girls. The narrator was thirteen at the time; her older brother, with whom she was very close, tried to disguise her as a boy, but she was discovered. When he attempted to fight off her attacker, her brother was killed. In this story, the narrator, now 36 years old and a “ghostwriter” of other people’s books, confronts her brother’s ghost. “My brother watched me curiously as as I wept for him and for me, for all the years we could have had together but didn’t, for all the words never spoken between my mother, my father, and me. Most of all, I cried for those other girls who had vanished and never come back, including myself.”

Although I suppose the book was chosen as the First Year Book because of its subject of refugees and immigrants, this first story relates equally well to the #MeToo movement, telling as it does of the lasting trauma inflicted on survivors of sexual assault, who may appear to be functioning, but who have lost themselves, or a part of themselves.

The Other Man is the story of Liem, whose American sponsor is Parrish Coyne, an openly gay man living in San Francisco with a young Chinese immigrant named Marcus Chan. Liem is also gay, but has been unable to admit it to himself. By the end of the story, Liem is beginning to accept his sexuality and even sleeps with Marcus when Parrish is away.

“‘They think we’ve got a Western disease,’ Marcus said. ‘Or so my father says.’

‘We?’ Liem said.

‘Don’t think I don’t know.'”

War Years focuses on a family of Vietnamese refugees who are trying to leave the war behind them and move on with their American lives, but it is difficult when some members of their community keep trying to keep the struggle alive. Mrs. Hoa is one such person. She frequently comes around pressuring people to donate to the fight against Communism. The young narrator’s father would like to give her some money to keep her from spreading rumors about them in the community, but his mother insists that giving in will only make it worse. “It’s extortion,” she insists. Eventually, the mother confronts Mrs. Hoa in her home. . . . but the reality turns out to be a little different from what she had assumed.

The Transplant is the story of the odd friendship between Arthur Arrellano and Louis Vu, whose father’s liver saved Arthur’s life. . . or did it?

I’d Love You To Want Me describes the difficult path walked by Mrs. Sa Khanh as her professor husband succumbs to the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease.  Mrs. Khanh is devastated when her husband insists on calling her by another woman’s name. Can she overcome her feelings of betrayal and continue to care for him?

In The Americans, African-American former fighter pilot James Carver and his Japanese wife Michiko are visiting their daughter Claire and her boyfriend in Vietnam, where Claire teaches English and her boyfriend works on disabling the many landmines. The POV is Carver’s, and he struggles during the visit. He doesn’t like the boyfriend, he is unhappy that his daughter wants to remain in Vietnam (where she feels she belongs), and he resists any accommodation to the place or the people. He picks fights with Claire, who says “He’s old and angry and bitter and he’s taking it out on everyone he meets.”  She berates her father for his role in the bombing of the country and people she loves. Carver, feeling misunderstood, stomps off in the monsoon rain, falls in the mud, and ends up in the hospital with a fever. Daughter has to help Father get to the bathroom, just as he used to help her, all those years ago. This is really a story of a man coming to terms with his mortality, as his body betrays him and his family moves on into a different future.

Someone Else Besides You examines the relationships between the 33-year-old narrator (Thomas), his father, and his father’s girlfriend. Thomas’s mother is dead. He and his wife are separated over the issue of whether to have children; his father pushes him to try to persuade her to come back to the marriage. His father constantly puts Thomas down, e.g.: “You were only half a man before you met her, and you’re back to being half a man now.” If this is how Vietnamese fathers talk to their sons, it’s really harsh. Then again, why would I assume that all Vietnamese fathers relate to the theirs in the same way? Thomas is a fairly passive individual, prone to weeping; his father is his opposite, unemotional and aggressive. Father and son go to visit ex-wife Sam, who is pregnant (with whose baby?). Thomas harbors no hope of a reconciliation, but he finds himself more amenable to the idea of a child, now that the child is about to become a reality.

The last story, Fatherland, is about a Vietnamese family whose father left his first family behind after the war, but he gave the children of his second wife the same names as the children of his first wife. Twenty-three-year-old Phuong finally meets her namesake (who calls herself Vivien, after Vivien Leigh, and is a doctor in Chicago). The story follows the development of the relationship between the two Phuongs during Vivien’s visit to Saigon. It turns out that Vivien has not been completely honest about her situation. Phuong is nevertheless inspired to follow her sister’s example and leave Vietnam for a different life.

The essay On Being a Refugee, an American–and a Human Being follows the eight stories. I think the essay was my favorite piece in the book, betraying my preference for non-fiction over fiction. The author shares his own story and considers the current xenophobia, yet another instance of a recurring phenomenon throughout American history. He writes, “The average American, or European, who feels that refugees or immigrants threaten their jobs does not recognize that the real culprits for their economic plight are the corporate interests and individuals that want to take the profits and are perfectly happy to see the struggling pitted against each other. The economic interests of the unwanted and the fearful middle class are aligned–but so many can’t see that because of how much they fear the different, the refugee, the immigrant. In its most naked form, this is racism. In a more polite form, it takes the shape of defending one’s culture, where one would rather remain economically poor but ethnically pure. This fear is a powerful force, and I admit to being afraid of it.” This essay is followed by In Praise of Doubt and Uselessness, a contemplation of the writing life that led to the publication of these eight stories, which took 17 years from inception to publication.

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Evening Class

Posted by nliakos on April 21, 2019

by Maeve Binchy (Delacorte 1996)

I love how Maeve Binchy draws the reader into the lives of her various characters, and how she neatly resolves the conflicts and ties everything up neatly at the end. Her novels are not challenging, but they are very satisfying to read.

Evening Class follows Nora O’Donoghue (aka “Signora”), Aidan Dunne, Bill Burke, Kathy and Fran Clarke, Lou Lynch, Connie Kane, Laddy Byrne, and Fiona (and their friends and families) through a year of evening classes in Italian language and culture in a rundown school located in a poor area of Dublin. Nora/Signora, back home in Ireland after living in a Sicilian village for almost 30 years as the mistress of the local restaurateur, is the teacher of the class. Aidan, whose wish to become the principal of Mountainview College has been foiled by a man he despises, is in charge of the class. The others, except for Fiona, are some of the students in the Italian class (she is a friend of Aidan’s adult daughters and girlfriend of Barry, who is in the class). Each of the above characters has his or her own chapter, as is common in Binchy’s novels where she weaves the story of a place through its denizens (as in The Copper Beech), and it’s challenging to keep everybody straight and remember who is who and who knows whom, and in what capacity exactly (particularly since the members of the Italian class all have Italian names in addition to their Irish ones: Guglielmo for Bill, Caterina for Kathy, Luigi for Lou, Constanza for Connie, Lorenzo for Laddy, Bartolomeo for Barry–as do all the other members of the class who do not rate their own chapter). Binchy works in loveless marriages, intellectual disabilities, family secrets of various sorts, love affairs of short and long duration, mobsters, bank fraud, sexual dysfunction, and more, all of which she wraps up neatly by the end of the book. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Les Misérables

Posted by nliakos on March 19, 2019

by Victor Hugo (Classiques abrégés, abrégé par Marie-Hélène Sabard 1996; original published in 1862)

I had several reasons to reread Les Misérables. First, my cousin Brigitte, who lives outside of Paris, had recently sent me a double CD with the original French version of the musical. I’ve been listening to it like crazy and copying out the lyrics from the impossibly small print on the booklet included with the CDs (this requires a very large magnifying glass and natural light). Also, PBS is broadcasting a new six-part adaptation of the novel on Masterpiece beginning in April. Then Brigitte sent me this abridged French version which she had on her bookshelf (“Schools no longer require that students read original unabridged literature,” she complained.) So I started reading it, tentatively at first, but then with relative ease. There were a lot of words that were new to me, as you would expect, but I used Google Translate on my phone, which worked for most of them. There were a few that made no sense (G.T. provides only one translation; if there are several meanings, that’s too bad!) and a few which supplied English words I wasn’t familiar with either (like borne, which was translated as bollard; I had to look it up in in a French online dictionary to discover that it meant a short, thick post).

Anyway, it answered a lot of questions I had while listening to the musical (and some that hadn’t occurred to me). For example, why didn’t Cosette object to her beloved father’s disappearance from her life after she married Marius? The answer is complicated. He didn’t just disappear; he used to come and visit her every evening at first, then less frequently; she was involved in her life as a newlywed and mistress of a large household; she was following Marius’ lead… Hugo goes into some detail (probably even more so in the original version) to explain this.

Something else I wondered about was whether the Thénardier family recognized their familiar relationships, and whether they recognized Cosette as the little girl they had enslaved at their inn in Montfermeil, once they had moved to Paris. Azelma, the second daughter, plays an insignificant role in the novel and has no role in the musical. But Eponine and Gavroche knew that they were brother and sister. In the novel, there are two younger boys whom Gavroche helps when they find themselves, at the ages of five and seven, alone on the streets of Paris, but he does not realize that they are related to him; the reader never finds out what happened to them after the night he hosts them in the belly of the Elephant of the Bastille, a damaged statue where he sleeps at night. The Thénardiers did recognize Cosette as the girl that lived with them at the inn, and Jean Valjean as the man who had paid off her debts and taken her away. In this abridged version at least, Hugo does not delve into the resentment Eponine must have felt when the man she loved fell in love with Cosette. In the musical (in the French version, anyway–I haven’t listened to the English version in a while), Ponine bemoans her fate but accepts that some people are born to happiness, while others are not.

The character of Jean Valjean is the most interesting for me. He begins his life’s journey as a kind of unthinking brute, goes through the horror of incarceration and the incessant pursuit by Javert, but rescues Cosette and manages to raise and educate her despite having no papers (which must have been tricky). He pretends to be someone he is not for her sake. Given the opportunity to shoot Inspector Javert, he sets him free (inadvertently killing him with kindness). He saves Marius despite his hatred and jealousy of the one whom Cosette loves more than she loves him and does what he can to ensure Marius and Cosette’s marriage. He is totally selfless–not really a believable character, but one you have to admire.

My biggest problem with the book is how unrealistic it is for the same people (Jean Valjean, Inspector Javert, the Thénardiers and Marius) to keep accidentally running into each other in different parts of France. (Javert just happens to be assigned to Montreuil-sur-Maire, where Jean Valjean has started a new life as M. Madeleine, owner of a factory and mayor of the town; later he just happens to be reassigned to Paris, just as Valjean and Cosette arrive there to hide in plain sight. Thénardier just happens to inadvertently save the life of Marius’ father after the Battle of Waterloo. Marius just happens to rent a room next to the Thénardiers’ room in Paris; Javert just happens to be at the police station where Marius goes to report the Thénardiers’ plot to murder Valjean. Thénardier just happens to be in the sewer when Jean Valjean is there with the moribund Marius on his back. . . .)

But hey, it’s a good story.

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Posted by nliakos on February 4, 2019

by Junot Diaz (Riverhead Books, 2007)

This is one of those novels which does not unfold chronologically. Instead, the story of Oscar, his sister Lola, his mother Beli, his grandmother “La Inca”, and Yunior (Lola’s sometime boyfriend and the narrator of most of the novel), is spun in a haphazard way, as if the chapters had been thrown down the stairs and then organized according to which step they landed on. It’s not always obvious who is speaking, or about whom. The reader needs patience to figure it out. Parts of the novel take place in New Jersey, other parts in the Dominican Republic. There are voluminous footnotes to explain references to DR history that a non-Dominican reader would not know. The language is a combination of Spanish (a lot of slang) and English; I studied Spanish in school for many years (many years ago, too) and could understand enough to keep going (even if the slang expressions were beyond me), but I’m guessing that a reader with no knowledge of Spanish would be flummoxed. (Example: Her advice? Forget that hijo de la porra, that comehuevo. Every disgraciado who walks in here is in love with you. You could have the whole maldito world if you wanted.) And there is a lot of bad language and an obsession with sex, asses, and breasts. (One of the principal conflicts in the story is Oscar’s inability to get laid.)

That said, I kind of enjoyed it. It wasn’t boring, I learned a lot about the DR, and I got to use my poor Spanish.

By the way, the author has been accused of sexual harassment; he has denied the allegations. It wouldn’t surprise me; the treatment of women in the novel was pretty sexist. They are tough and smart, but they are also sexual objects.

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Gone Away Lake

Posted by nliakos on January 30, 2019

by Elizabeth Enright (Harcourt 1957)

This is a simple story of some children who discover an abandoned community near their vacation home. Only two elderly siblings live there, but they are delighted with the children and they all become friends. At first, they keep it a secret, but soon the secret becomes impossible to keep. Nothing particularly exciting or spooky happens. It’s nice that the children and the old folks befriend one another. I was underwhelmed.

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The Signature of All Things

Posted by nliakos on January 29, 2019

by Elizabeth Gilbert

This is the first of Elizabeth Gilbert’s novels that I have read, although I read and enjoyed both Eat, Pray, Love and CommittedThe story of Alma Whittaker consumed me for days; I loved it.  The story takes us from Alma’s birth in 1800s Philadelphia to self-made tycoon Henry Whittaker and his dour, no-nonsense Dutch wife, Beatrix (with a long detour to describe Henry’s childhood in England, his travels with Captain Cook, and his rise to wealth in the New World).

Alma is not a pretty girl, but she is exceptionally intelligent and blessed with a wonderful memory and a gift for taxonomy. She receives an excellent education and is encouraged to pursue her interest in botany. As she grows older, she becomes an indispensable part of the family business (botanicals, pharmaceuticals, etc.), but she is not lucky in love. She falls in love first with her friend and publisher, George Hawkes, but he marries her silly friend Retta. Then she falls in love again with botanical painter Ambrose Pike, who comes to stay and work at White Acre, the Whittakers’ sumptuous estate in Philadelphia. It seems as though Ambrose returns Alma’s affection, but not in the way she had hoped. With Ambrose banished to Tahiti, Alma struggles with grief and depression at White Acre, as her parents grow older and die, leaving everything to her. But her entire life is called into question by a family servant, Hanneke, who forces Alma to realize the sacrifices that were made for her by others. Alma decides to leave White Acre behind and to strike out on her own for Tahiti, leaving the estate and the business interests to her sister, to try to find the explanation for Ambrose’s behavior.

Tahiti is completely life-changing for Alma, who had never traveled farther than Trenton in her entire life. She learns there to let go of things and to relate to people in entirely new ways. She is about to give up her quest for answers when the person who can tell her what she needs to know suddenly appears before her. She then travels to Amsterdam, to her mother’s people. On the long voyage home, accompanied only by a mangy Tahitian stray dog, Alma begins to write down her theory of competitive alteration, but she is not entirely satisfied with it and is therefore reluctant to publish it. It is several years later that she hears about, and then reads, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. She realizes that she has lost her opportunity to publish her groundbreaking theory because she hesitated for so long. She feels a special kinship with Alfred Russel Wallace, who likewise came up independently with the idea that natural selection, as Darwin called it, is responsible for species differentiation.

Alma Whittaker is a memorable character, a woman of great intelligence, integrity, and passion, with the courage to confront her life, with its privileges and challenges, head on. By the end of the novel, I both admired and loved Alma. Other characters–Alma’s parents, her sister Prudence, Ambrose Pike, the Reverend Welles and his adopted son Tomorrow Morning, Alma’s uncle Dees van Devender, and others, come alive as one reads. In addition, reading this book is like reading a history of science in the 19th century. Fabulous.

My favorite chapter is the seventh, which describes how 16-year-old Alma discovers how to pleasure herself from a book in the White Acre library. The first time she locks herself in a closet to experiment is the day George Hawkes, the botanical publisher, and the insufferable Professor Peck are dinner guests. During the dinner, Alma finds it impossible to concentrate on the conversation, and Prudence joins it for the very first time, arguing coolly with the opinionated professor on the subject of racism. It is wonderfully funny.

A few favorite quotes:

On learning of Ambrose Pike’s death: The news hit Alma with all the force of an ax head striking granite: it clanged in her ears, shuddered her bones, and struck sparks before her eyes. It knocked a wedge of something out of her–a wedge of something terribly important–and that wedge was sent spinning into the air, never to be found again. If she had not been sitting, she would have fallen down. As it was, she collapsed forward onto her father’s desk, pressed her face against the Reverend F. P. Welles’s most kind and thoughtful letter, and wept like to pull down every cloud from the vaults of heaven.

On nearly drowning while in Tahiti: Then–in the seconds that remained before it would have been too late to reverse course at all–Alma suddenly knew something. She knew it with every scrap of her being, and it was not a negotiable bit of information: she knew that she, the daughter of Henry and Beatrix Whittaker, had not been put on this earth to drown in five feet of water. She also knew this: if she had to kill somebody in order to save her own life,she would do so unhesitatingly. Lastly, she knew one other thing, and this was the most important realization of all: she knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. This was a simple fact. This fact was not merely true about the lives of human beings; it was also true of every living entity on the planet, from the largest creation down to the humblest. It was even true of mosses. This fact was the very mechanism of nature–the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation–and it was the explanation Alma had been seeking forever.

On composing her theory of competitive alteration: To tell this story–the story of species transmutation, as demonstrable through the gradual metastasis of mosses–Alma did not need notes, or access to the old library at White Acre, or her herbarium. She needed none of this, for a vast comprehension of moss taxonomy already existed within her head, filling every corner of her cranium with well-remembered facts and details. She also had at her fingertips (or, rather, at her mind’s fingertips) all the ideas that had already been written over the last century on the subject of species metamorphosis and geological evolution. Her mind was like a terrific repository of endless shelves, stacked with untold thousands of books and boxes, organized into infinite, alphabetized particulars. She did not need a library. She was a library.

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