Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Place and a Condition

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan in August of 1974."

So begins this book and the explanation for this intriguing conundrum comes promptly thereafter, when we learn of the narrator's ancient genetic mutation, in conjunction with a brief smattering of the contradictions in the speaker's life that led up to, and immediately followed, this astounding discovery. Fascinating, right - and that's just on the first pages of this novel.

While the investigation into only this one dramatic life-changing event could easily make an excellent novel, Eugenides also gives us the history of how this mutation came about, with the family's history starting with her/his grandparents and their escape from Greece. Together we learn the genealogy of Calliope Helen Stephanides and the events leading to her become Cal. While this sounds somewhat cut and dry, Eugenides' style is such that every piece of the puzzle is artistically drawn and gently fitted together. However, there isn't much mystery here, since we know from the outset where we are going; but how Eugenides leads us there is what makes this book so amazing.

Although broken down into four ‘books' Eugenides doesn't stick completely to a chronological account. Right from the beginning, we feel that much of this is a story told in memories more than flashbacks, without ever placing the action in further back than January 1960. It is almost like watching a movie while listening to the director's commentary, with careful peppering of the historical references to Calliope/Cal. The trials and tribulations of these ancestors therefore take on a rosy wash to them, and despite the harshness of some of these events, the wisdom of hindsight has a softening effect. Add to this a fine balance of first and third person narrations allowing the events prior to 1960 to include conversations, along with observances by Calliope/Cal and how these events influenced the more recent past and present.

While this mixture may sound like it could be confusing, there wasn't even one instance where the reader will feel unsure or confused. This is due to very subtle use of language alterations, which carefully color each of the eras included in the story, using older or more modern language as the settings required. Yet, the distinctive voice throughout the novel keeps this from feeling inconsistent or fake. Not all writers can walk this thin line, yet this is masterful and stylistic writing which won Eugenides a Pulitzer Prize for this book in 2003.

It is important to note this book doesn't answer all the questions it poses. For instance, Calliope/Cal has an older brother who is called Chapter Eleven, which Americans will identify as professional slang for filing bankruptcy. We never learn why they call him this brother, although we're sure that can't be his real name. We also don't get heavily detailed information about some of the other characters, and several feel more vivid than others do. Mind you, we don't always want every character getting equal billing, and since Calliope/Cal is the central character, it is on her/him that we can and should concentrate. This is what we get in spades - Calliope/Cal and how she/he becomes, develops, changes, and deals with her/his condition. We always feel Calliope/Cal's presence in the narrative, and we often find ourselves looking at those events through his/her eyes. This means that while the obvious, even clichéd ways that authors develop their characters isn't evident in this book, we certainly get a far more subtle, almost subliminal indication of Calliope/Cal and how she/he gets from point A to point B.

However, what struck me as most impressive is how Eugenides instills Calliope/Cal's sexual dichotomy through this narrative. Since the book tells us early on that Cal is in his 40s when he accounts these events, we know that he has been living the majority of his life as a man. Yet, there is something very specifically feminine in almost all of what Cal is, says and does. Eugenides seems to be telling us that despite biology and Cal's own realization that he really was and is a boy, the effect of spending 16 years as a girl, can never totally wear off. Portraying this, without saying it straight out, is nothing short of genius.

This is a book for savoring, but it also isn't the easiest thing to read. I'd say you should keep it for a time when you can concentrate on it, because if you do, it will be well worth the effort. The subtle use of language and style is exceptional and the subject matter of the book is uniquely absorbing. I can't recommend this highly enough and give it a full five stars out of five.

"Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenides is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (in iBook or audiobook form), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a version of my review that appears on Curious Book Fans, Dooyoo and previously appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Burning and Building Bridges

Letters from the Fire by Alma Alexandra Hromic and R. A. Deckert

During the NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, also known as "Operation Allied Force," two people "meet" on an internet newsgroup – one is a woman in Yugoslavia, watching the bombing of her homeland by NATO forces. The other is a man in the USA – watching the news from afar. As they argue the different sides of what they see and what they believe is right, they discover a connection that is stronger than their disagreements, and surpasses the physical distance between them.

First, this novel is almost entirely the fictionalized postings to an internet newsgroup and email correspondence, making it probably the first electronic epistolary novel ever written. While this book came out in 1999, just after the fighting ended, it actually developed in real life, much as it plays out in the book – via the internet. What drew me to this book was that I actually watched most of this story unfold before my own eyes, on the same newsgroup (misc.writing), which the authors were actually frequenting. Then someone on the group suggested that they put their real frustrations into a fictional story and that is how, "Letters from the Fire" came to be. This also cemented their real-life personal relationship, leading Alma to move to the USA from New Zealand and marry Deck.

While in real life, Deck and Alma took much the same side politically regarding the NATO operation, in order to bring more spice to the book, they decided to pit the fictional Dave against the fictional Sasha, politically. Although Alma wasn't living in Novi Sad at the time of the bombings, it made more sense to put Sasha right on the front lines. However, what this book concentrates on besides the bombings, are the people who communicate almost half way across the globe, and how such a relationship can grow despite never meeting face-to-face. The story begins with Sasha's postings about her horror at the destruction of a bridge in Belgrade, which leads to a new, more emotional bridge between Sasha and Dave.

With such a personal story that almost parallels the real-life one, one might worry if the authors could keep from being overly involved, and fall into the trap of this becoming more of a love story than a story about two people who connect on different levels during a difficult time. Fortunately, these two were (and are) true professionals, and kept the romantic part of the story as a byproduct of the action, rather than the central theme. In this way, their relationship becomes even more poignant, since it seems something that they both resist, but equally find irresistible.

Since Deck wrote the entries from Dave and Alma wrote the entries from Sasha, there is no problem with the readers identifying two very distinctive voices here, and very quickly, you'll be skipping over the "headings" of the entries, which state clearly, who is writing what. Since the authors based these characters on themselves, they quickly become among the most vivid people you've ever read. This makes reader empathy for these characters almost mandatory, and I dare you not to feel the tugs at your heartstrings as you read this novel. Again, this isn't a mushy romantic novel, and is as far from "Chick-Lit" as can be imagined, but the emotions that this story evokes are undeniable.

It may be that I'm somewhat attached to this book because I "know" Deck and Alma from the newsgroup. In all honesty, I don't think that this is the case. If nothing else I've said recommends it, readers should know that this novel was a breakthrough on writing about the internet age. The fact that the bombings are long over, doesn't mean that we haven't seen or can't imagine something similar in other wars across the world. The internet has made this globe a much smaller place than ever, and this book poignantly shows just how close we can become, despite the distances between us. I couldn't give it less than a full five stars and highly recommend it. 

"Letters from the Fire" by Alma Alexander Hromic and R.A. Deckert is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Better World Books and Alibris. This is a version of my review which appears on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady) and previously appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network. I would like to thank the authors for sending me a (signed) copy of this book as a gift, and never requested a review in return.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Finding a Fictional Role Model

How to Be a Heroine: or What I've Learned from Reading Too Much by Samantha Ellis

Calling all women who read fiction: tell me, can you point to one female character from any book or story you've ever read and say, "Yes, that's me" or even "Yes, that's who I want to be like"? If you can't, or if you once had one but now, you realize she's not exactly right, you should read this book. This is what Samantha Ellis sets out to investigate after her best friend challenges her when she says Cathy Earnshaw is her ultimate heroine, and suggests Jane Eyre in her stead. This revolutionary idea was the beginning of Ellis' search to find out which of these literary females she was not only most akin to, but also which one she really wanted to be like.

To do this, Ellis looks at a huge selection of women and girls portrayed in fiction from Sleeping Beauty to Katniss Everdeen of "The Hunger Games," with dozens in between, with both her tender heart and her critical eye. What's more, she also looks at the writers behind these characters, looking to see if their own personal histories could give us clues as to why they gave these women both their strengths and their flaws. This is also Ellis' own personal coming-of-age story, starting with the books of her childhood through to today, on a journey of discovery along her life via the many heroines she both loved and hated along the way.

The first thing you'll notice about this book is that Ellis is extremely well read. Although I'm an avid reader myself, I am also mildly dyslexic and therefore a slow reader, and this book proved just how many holes that put into my own literary education (and I'm nearly 30 years her senior). Thankfully, Ellis included many books I was well familiar with, but reader beware - in several instances, in order to make her point, she includes some spoilers (most, without warning), which I found somewhat disconcerting for those books I've never read. Despite this, there were several books on her list that I'm now sorely tempted to read, and other books that I thought were missing.

While Ellis never hides the fact that this is her story, her life and her heroines, she also asks the types of questions that most women who grew up with these books might (or perhaps should) have been asking themselves all along. Among these questions are such things as what have 21st century women learned from these books regarding how we behave vs. how we want to live our lives, and which of these characters inspire or hold us back from being the best type of women we can be. She also wonders about how these characters and their authors look at love, men, and their role in achieving happiness, as well as the obstacles they can pose along our path to personal fulfillment.

Interestingly enough, the one question Ellis doesn't ask is whether we ever even looked at these fictional women as role models for our own lives. This question occurred to me as I was reading this book, mostly because I don't think I ever looked at any fictional character in this way. For me, novels have always been a way to enter into the many worlds that authors have to offer. Their characters are human beings, with all strengths and weaknesses that come with that. How they conducted themselves, the situations they found themselves in and what they wanted from their lives, were things that I related to on a fictional level, but never in comparison to my own world, life and dreams. Sure, some of them made me envious, and some even made me angry regarding their choices and paths, but I don't believe the heroines of the books I read ever had any influence on my own life (aside from encouraging me to read more), and maybe that was a good thing, because it certainly feels that way.

This doesn't mean that Ellis' journey wasn't a fascinating one; it only means that I didn't see a parallel one for my life. Even so, I could still relate to her razor-sharp analysis of these characters and their authors, and I particularly enjoyed how she tore apart the heroines that disappointed or upset her, while trying to understand why these women were written in those ways
(I can just imagine what she might have said about Anastasia Steele of the 50 Shades books and their author E.L. James). This is why I think that any fiction-reading feminist will find this an absorbing read, even if they've never aspired to live the life of their favorite protagonist(but especially if they have), and that's why I'm giving this book a strong four out of five stars and can warmly recommend it.

"How to be a Heroine: or What I've Learned from Reading Too Much" by Samantha Ellis, published by Vintage Books, released February 3, 2015 is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (other eReader formats), iTunes, the Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), new or used from Alibris and Better World Books, or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a copy of this book for review via NetGalley. This review also appears on my Times of Israel blog.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Last of Will and his Testament

Will by Christopher Rush

Biographies can often be terribly boring, academic tomes that find interest only to those fascinated by the subjects. Autobiographies can be terribly indulgent works that leave out anything negative about the person. In general, it is far more fun to read fiction. What makes this book different is that it is a fictional autobiography. What this means is Rush decided to get into the head and voice of the most famous writer of all time, William Shakespeare, and write a biographical piece with the narrator being none other than the Bard himself!

The premise here is that Shakespeare is on his deathbed and he is dictating his last will and testament to his lawyer, a Falstaff-like gentleman named Francis Collins. While our William isn’t very happy to be in the physical state he’s found himself in, he takes this opportunity to reflect on his life as a whole and tell Francis of all the events he experienced. We thereby get an account that begins with his parents, brothers and sisters and his own birth straight through to the ‘present’ when he’s nearing death.

There are certain drawbacks in such a work. For instance, the language here is very much in tune with the time of Shakespeare’s life and era. In this, we find that it to be both lyrical in the use of words and phrasing as well as using less than modern language. This may be tough going for many readers, but those who enjoy Shakespeare’s poetry and his creative word usage will find that it flows with an almost dreamlike quality. Personally, this was very attractive and had me transfixed from the opening.

Readers may also find that certain sections of this account are less than palatable. There are numerous accounts of how the plague, well… plagued the citizens of Britain throughout Shakespeare’s life. He even goes so far as to describe the horrendous pain and suffering of those afflicted before they succumb to the disease. Here too are some terribly unhappy accounts of the filth of London, concerning not only the sub-standard hygiene but also the personalities and types of characters that roamed the streets. However, Rush doesn’t bother to wax lyrical about Shakespeare’s own depravity as William tells Collins freely of his many adulterous actions. Some of these accounts are graphic, but thankfully fall just short of being pornographic, although many readers may find them to be on the heavy side.

One of the more fascinating parts of the book is where Shakespeare discusses the different political situations that he lived through. He lived to see the end of King Henry VIII’s rule, as well as the brief reigns of Edward IV and Mary I. William also lived through all of the reign of Elizabeth I, as well as the almost half of the rule of James I. What Shakespeare never revealed to the world during his lifetime, Rush also leaves as a mystery to the readers, and we don’t ever find out which side of the religious struggle he sympathized with. Of course, the explanation here is obvious – in order to remain employed, keeping your religion secret during these times was practically mandatory. Moreover, when Shakespeare talks about Christopher Marlowe, he brings up the conspiracy theory surrounding that mysterious death, and speculates how his atheism might have come into play.

Other intriguing sections of this book include tales of how Shakespeare began the Globe Theater, his own theory on why his plays became so popular and how he went from bordering on poverty to amassing a fortune and how it grew through his wise investments.

The part of this book that depends mostly on fiction covers Shakespeare’s “lost years” from 1585 (when he left Stratford-upon-Avon) through 1592 (when we know he was in London) where there is no consensus regarding his life. For this period Rush let his imagination run wild, but kept it from being farfetched by adhering to the theme of Shakespeare’s pursuit of the theater. All this ties in beautifully with William becoming a famous playwright and poet, which contributes to the general flow of the book. In fact, the meshing here of fiction and known fact is so well crafted here that you will truly get a feeling that this could have been the Bard himself recounting his life’s story. For those who have read Shakespeare’s works, you’ll recognize many quotes from his plays and poems added in for effect. What’s more, Rush also includes a first-person postmortem – which means we get to read Shakespeare’s words from beyond the grave. While this is a bit strange, it is forgivable since this is fiction.

All told, this book is an extremely creative way to learn about Shakespeare and his life, even if not all of it is factual. While earlier parts of the book are a bit hard going, if you get past the first drier bits, you may find yourself compelled to read through to the end. While this book is not for everyone (due to some of the language and more graphic sections), this book is highly recommended and deserves a solid four out of five stars.

"Will" by Christopher Rush is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a version of my review that appears on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo, which also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

To the 4th generation

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell

In the late 1800s, Lenz Alter was a chemist who succeeded in discovering the compound to make fertilizer, winning him a Nobel Prize. After that discovery, the thing that started out to feed the world, morphed into the deadly chemical weapons of two world wars - chlorine gas and Zyclon. The shadow of this tormented the Alter family, filling its tree with three generations of suicides. In 1999, the fourth generation of Alters, Lady, Vee and Delph are three sisters and his last descendants. For the sins of their fathers, they have decided to kill themselves. Before they do, they want the world to know why. This is their story, as well as their collective suicide note. The question is how three sisters are able to write just one suicide note.

The answer I want to give here is "very carefully, apparently" (as in, the same as the joke about how porcupines make love). While this sounds glib in light of the grave subject matter, in truth, it mirrors this novel's tone perfectly. In fact, this story is about as vivacious as a book about suicide could ever be and a major element that makes this novel wholly beguiling. With the three sisters getting ready to off themselves, writing a note is the exact opposite of how their many familial role models ended their lives. Therefore, their goal is to tell this story so the world will finally get an explanation.

Think, for a moment, about the various sense of that word "finally" here. If you do, you'll also realize that it is an important indication about the nature of this book, because Mitchell counterbalances the hopelessness with humor. This allows her to avoid these women to sound self-pitying. Case in point is Mitchell's liberal distribution of puns within the storytelling. The sisters tell us early on that their father loved languages, and especially enjoyed playing with words, particularly in English. These joking statements and the many cutting remarks and sharp insights easily have become ludicrous. Thankfully, Mitchell uses them in artfully so they show up when least expected, and exactly when the narrative feels like it might turn dark and gloomy. Additionally, Mitchell juxtaposes this with what Delph calls the "horizontal light," which she only seems to see when contemplating death.

Then there is the real conceit here, which is Mitchell's use of a unique literary voice. Most writers attempting this story would give each sister their own, first person voice. Barring that, the third person omnipresent would work just as well. Mitchell, however, takes on the much-underused, and vastly more difficult, first person plural voice. She does this in order to give us no single protagonist, and instead, we come to think of the three sisters as one unit. Despite this, we still learn about their individual lives through their storytelling. This gives us a congruous voice to enlighten us about all the preceding generations, and the already introduced humor adds a comical take on their sardonic view of their family's past.

This makes for an ingeniously told story, probably one of the best I've read in some time, despite the inclusion of times and topics discussed, some of which are almost dramatic clichés. These include two World Wars, Jewish persecution and fleeing for their lives, less than ideal marriages, loneliness, estranged relatives, incest, extra-marital affairs, widowhood and cancer. Bundling all this and much more into one family certainly justifies these sisters' wanting to end it all much more understandable. We only wonder why it took them until they were in their 40s (1999), to realize the time was finally ripe for them.

Other than this, we also might not understand the addition of the last chapter here. This I found to be unnecessary to a certain extent, as well as a bit too brutal. This starkly contrasts with the careful and concise lightness of the rest of the book. That subtle gracefulness, of course, was an amazing achievement, especially considering the sprawling time-frames and weighty issues. Even so, I do understand why Mitchell added this, so despite this small niggle I still highly recommend this book and am giving it a solid four and a half stars out of five.

"A Reunion of Ghosts" by Judith Claire Mitchell published by Harper Collins UK/Harper Press/4th Estate/The Friday Project release date March 24, 2015 is available for pre-order from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), Alibris, or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel for review via NetGalley.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Capturing Memories for Eternity

I Stopped Time by Jane Davis

When Lottie Pye died at the age of 108 she left her whole collection of thousands of photographs to her son James, who she hadn't seen in almost 80 years. When James happens upon Jenny Jones, a University student studying photography, he decides to let her go through them and catalog them, never realizing that this could finally be a way to get to know both his mother, and himself.

I just adore strong female characters, especially those who find their own paths, even if that causes them problems. Lottie Pye is just that type of character - a woman ahead of her time, unwilling to be confined by the dictates of society, even if that causes problems for her or others. In this case, she ends up having to abandon her son - partially to get away from her emotionally abusive husband in London, and partially to return to her making her own life in her home in Brighton. Her son, on the other hand, isn't quite so resilient. His political career ended in disgrace and seemingly without much of a fight. So it isn't surprising that the pub waitress/university student Jenny Jones can manhandle him into accepting her amateur psychoanalysis of his mother through her photographs, and through them, all of James' apparent mistaken impressions he had of her. Of course, this makes quite a bit of sense considering he only recalls meeting his mother once, and despite his father never having anything bad to say about her. And so, the relationship between James and Lottie ends up being very complicated both because of and despite the dismal lack of contact.

Davis tells their stories in parallel, switching between Lottie's story that starts in 1910 and shifting every so often to James' story in 2009. This is a literary mechanic that isn't at all unique, but Davis uses it to its best advantage. Of course, the parts of James' story are fewer and further between because they span less than a year, but Lottie's story spans almost a full century. In this way, Davis uses James' story more to fill in a few of the blanks of Lottie's life than actually develop James as a central character. Personally, I found this to be the only aspect of the novel that didn't sit quite right with me. I would have liked to have gotten to know James a little bit better than what Davis gives us here.

Other than this small drawback, "I Stopped Time" has a whole lot going for it. The writing is honest and straightforward and the story is totally compelling. Davis doesn't pull any punches despite a few twists along the way that will raise an eyebrow more than evoke surprise, but also keeping you turning the pages. Despite the enormous timeline included, Davis has pared down the action to highlight only what is necessary to the character and plot development, and eliminating anything maudlin that two World Wars could easily have inspired. Kudos to her for that, since I can think of several writers who tackled far less than a century of action and still ended up giving us totally bloated and sickly sentimental novels. More importantly, Davis infuses Lottie with so much richness you might wish that some of Lottie's fictional photos were included as a supplement the story.

In short, Jane Davis' novel "I Stopped Time" is an artfully crafted character study that straddles the contemporary and historical fiction genres with grace and aplomb, while combining the best of both literary and women's fiction. I'm highly recommending it and giving it a full four stars out of five.

"I Stopped Time" by Jane Davis, published on January 14, 2014 on Kindle and re-released in May, 2014 in paperback from CreateSpace Independent Publishing, is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (in iBook form), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, or from an IndieBound store near you. My thanks to the publishers for sending me a review copy for review via Curious Book Fans (where this review originally appeared).

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