Saturday, May 30, 2015

Less than Picture Perfect

Lessons in French by Hilary Reyl

What budding artist wouldn't grab the chance to work in Paris with the world-famous photojournalist Lydia Schell? For Katherine, who just finished Yale, it will also be like going home, having lived in Paris as a young girl when her father was dying from cancer. Back then, she stayed with cousins and their son in a poor part of the city. Remembering that time, including her cousin Etienne's cruelty to her, still hurt, but they aren't going to get in the way of making new ones. This time Kate will be renting a room in the Schell's house, located in one of Paris' most classy neighborhoods. So what if Kate doesn't know how difficult Lydia is, or what she'll be doing for her? How hard could it be for a Yale graduate with unaccented and fluent French in the city of every artist's dreams? Furthermore, the Berlin Wall is about to come down, so this is the perfect time to work with a photojournalist.

The back cover of this book calls it a coming-of-age novel reminiscent of "The Devil Wears Prada." Certainly Lydia is very much a 'boss from hell,' in treating Kate more like a dogsbody than an assistant. But she's not the only one. Lydia's husband Clarence is working on a book during his sabbatical, and when Lydia is away, Kate must have time to help him, surely? It doesn't matter that he has his own assistant, the dark and mysterious Claudia, because she is working on her own thesis. The Schells also need help with their daughter Portia and her breakup with Olivier, as well as with Orlando, the dog belonging to their errant son Joshua. In short, Kate is at this family's beck and call, both physically and emotionally. That doesn't mean that her year in Paris will be without a bit of romance, but this bunch are going to complicate even that.

The question is where does Kate come into all this? How can she develop her own style as an artist, and her own self as a person, if she's mirroring everyone and everything around her? This is the essence of this book. With drawing Kate into all their deceptions and dramas, as an individual, Kate is floundering. Kate even says, "I ventured the idea…that I was living inside a Picasso, where everyone talked to me about everyone else so that I saw their lives from all angles while they had no idea about mine." We also realize how terribly needy Kate is, how much she desperately wants to be loved, and how blind she is to seeing people as they really are. This book would have been much more dramatic if Reyl had not used Kate as the narrator of her own story. Because of this, we have a hard time picturing Kate, which should have been clearer, despite Kate's declaration that "In Paris, I am virtually transparent."

In sharp contrast to this, the descriptions of Paris are so vivid, that one can easily envision every scene. Obviously, Reyl loves Paris, and knows it well, and if the story seems very personal, it is a metaphor, as well. Lydia's photography is described as having the genius quality of making the picture seem as if the scene portrayed is through the eyes of the subject. This is exactly how Reyl gives us Kate's Paris. Further, Kate learns that a photograph is more about framing the subject, than it is the subject itself, and Paris is the frame for Kate. Reyl portrays all this with a praiseworthy narrative style, with fluid prose and a strong voice.

As amazing and ambitious as all this sounds, unfortunately, this book falls just a little short. On the one hand, Kate's naivety persists far longer than it should, delaying her personal growth in the story. When the lights finally do come on, it happens too suddenly, practically blinding us with its flash. Despite this excellent photography metaphor, that's unsettling for the reader. We wonder about the incongruous actions of some of the characters, despite their deceptive natures. It frustrates us to wonder why Kate doesn't get it sooner; certainly, a Yale graduate can't be that naïve. Finally, that 'transparency' that Kate displays with such honor, distances her from the reader, making her less sympathetic. With so many of characters being dislikable, and the few nice ones pushed to the background, the book has a slightly bitter aura to it. Even so, Reyl knows how to get her readers caught up in her settings, making Paris into a magical city we want to discover.

Overall, Reyl is a talented writer, and perhaps she just needs a story that isn't so obviously personal in order to allow her to develop it fully. With all its drawbacks, the Paris of "Lessons in French" by Hilary Reyl makes this worth a read, but only deserves three out of five stars.

"Lessons in French" by Hilary Reyl 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. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me the uncorrected proof copy of this book for review via Curious Book Fans. This is a revised version of my review on that site, which was also published on Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady) and {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Socially Capital Laugh

Various Pets Alive & Dead by Marina Lewycka

Their twenty years of commune life didn't turn out as reaffirming as Marcus and Doro had hoped it would be, so maybe it is time to conform and get married. This isn't news their children ever expected to get, but neither Clara nor Serge are into their parent's radical lifestyle anymore. Clara is a teacher who is still idealistic, but quickly got used to the creature comforts living above the poverty line affords. Serge, on the other hand, is making lots of money applying his genius in math to the world of banking, but paranoid his parents will find out he's stopped working on his PhD. To top it off, Oolie-Anna's social worker wants to move her into a sheltered housing project for Down syndrome adults. Nothing is staying the same, but maybe that's not such a bad thing after all.

One thing you can count on in a Marina Lewycka novel is a fascinating cast of characters and their getting into some kind of trouble. Usually she makes sure they don't get involved in anything criminal, only caught up in sticky and uncomfortable situations. Lewycka also generously peppers her characters with all sorts of easily relatable flaws. Of course, this combination is the classic basis for a good comic novel, and on that count, Lewycka certainly doesn't disappoint with this latest novel, with a couple of small exceptions.

Before I discuss those specific exceptions, you should know this novel is also somewhat of a departure from Lewycka's previous works. Her first two novels (A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and Two Caravans) centered on different types of immigrants and migrants, their reasons for coming to Britain (both temporarily and permanently) and the problems they encountered in their interactions with other immigrants and migrants, as well as with the veteran residents. Her last novel, We are all made of Glue, still involved some foreign nationals and first-generation immigrants, but took a step back from them by having the main protagonist's roots more historically British.

While this theme still comes into play here, it is much more concentrated, with only Serge having contact with foreign nationals, those being several coworkers at his financial institution. While his involvement with (and detachment from) them is an important part of his story, this seems secondary to the mixed feelings he has about his growing wealth in light of his communist upbringing. In fact, some of the things that Lewycka has Serge's boss spout make one wonder if such financial moguls aren't actually mentally unstable, in addition to their boundless greed. With this, Lewycka takes a staunch moral stand against the banking industry's machinations that led to the financial crisis of 2007-8. At the other end of the scale, her descriptions of life on the commune also insert some very biting criticisms of communism and/or socialism. These are the exceptions I mentioned above, and are the only parts of this novel that are actually less than funny. While Lewycka never shied away from putting her opinions into her previous novels, here she seems more damning than before.

Lewycka also changed her voice in this novel. Instead of writing in first-person, this one has multiple third person narratives. To do this, Lewycka devotes each chapter to one of the three main characters of the central family - Doro, Serge and Clara, with only the final chapter highlighting Marcus. Although this somewhat depersonalizes the story, the advantage is the omnipresent narrator is more objective, and can thereby point out the absurdities, which adds to the wit and plays up the satire. At the same time, the added commentary that this voice allows helps us identify with each of the character's various weaknesses and that endears them to us, which can only be a good thing.

As a whole, I truly enjoyed this book. Each of the main characters had something about them that seemed real and vivid. Regarding the lessons Lewycka has put into this story, while I happen to agree with her appraisal of rampant capitalism, I'm not sure she should have taken this as far as she did. I'm also not convinced that her commune is an accurate depiction of communism. That said, I don't think either of these inclusions detract too much from the story. It is still lots of fun and just the type of escapism and honest humor that we've come to expect from Lewycka. For this, I'll give it four and a half stars out of five. 

"Various Pets Alive & Dead" by Marina Lewycka is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), the Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), as well as new or used from Alibris and Better World Books.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Literary Impressionism

The Sunken Cathedral by Kate Walbert

According to the publisher's website, this novel "follows a cast of characters as they negotiate one of Manhattan’s swiftly changing neighborhoods, extreme weather, and the unease of twenty-first-century life." The main characters are Marie and Simone, friends of many decades, survivors of World War II, now widowed and living in the neighborhood of Chelsea in New York. The publishers also said, "Walbert paints portraits of marriage, of friendship, and of love in its many facets, always limning the inner life, the place of deepest yearning and anxiety."

Choosing the word 'limning' couldn't have been a more perfect one for this novel. A quick look up defines it as to "depict or describe in painting or words" or " suffuse or highlight (something) with a bright color or light." That is exactly what Walbert does - she suffuses the story with color and light, and paints this story with her words. Walbert does this with lyrical prose, which results in her combining art and music into her narrative.

It should therefore be no surprise that this book is highly connected to the impressionist movements in art, music and literature. The most obvious connection is the School for Impressionist Art, where Marie and Simone decide to take a painting course. Their instructor, Sid Morris, gives them models to work from, but only as suggestions. He doesn't insist they paint what is in front of them. Instead, he wants them to put their feelings on the canvas, much like the impressionist artists did in the late 19th century.

Walbert then moves to the musical connection with several references to the radio playing something by Debussy, an impressionist composer. In fact, the title of this book is the same as his piano prelude "La Cathédrale Engloutie," which, of course, is French for "The Sunken Cathedral." Not being familiar with that work, I wanted to hear it for myself. This led me to the Breton legend of the City of Ys, Debussy's inspiration for this piece. I found many versions of this legend, all of which include its watery downfall, which is the element most relevant to this novel. Walbert turns that into a catastrophic storm that's about to hit New York. (By the way, this isn't Hurricane Sandy, but rather an even worse, fictional storm, taking place in the very near future.)

All of this is a complex backdrop for Walbert's impressions of this confluence of characters, whose lives both intersect and diverge, their pasts, their present and even their futures. Usually people break down novels between those that are plot driven and those that are character driven. On first glance, one might put this into the latter category. However, there is a third type of novel, and that is a language driven story. By that, I mean a book whose prose is so striking and absorbing, that even if you aren't sure about all the characters, or where the story is leading, you just don't care because the prose itself has you captivated. This is one of those books, and at the risk of sounding overly effusive, this luscious novel is simply exquisite to read, and a pure delight to experience. Obviously, this gets a full five out of five stars from me, and comes overwhelmingly recommended. 

"The Sunken Cathedral" by Kate Walbert published by Scribner (a division of Simon & Schuster), release date June 9, 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 this book for my upcoming review on BookBrowse via NetGalley.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Hollywood Secrets and Pasts

Melting the Snow on Hester Street by Daisy Waugh

Its 1929 and movie director Max Beecham and his actress wife Eleanor hobnob with Charlie Chaplain, Greta Garbo, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, John Barrymore, Gloria Swanson and more. To them, Max and Eleanor are the happiest, most loving couple in Hollywood. However, the Beechams are even better actors than those on the silver screen. They haven't been happy since they left their old lives behind in New York, together with their tiny daughter, Isha. While Max seems to have given up, Eleanor is still determined to find her, or at least find out what happened to her.

The glamorous aura of the movie industry during Hollywood's "Golden Era" makes an excellent setting for this novel. With this, Waugh focuses her story on the Beechams, the people they really were (aka Matz and Elena Beekman) and the mystery behind their missing daughter. This brings the reader back to earlier in the century and the other side of the country - to New York in 1911. It was there, in the slums teeming with immigrants that hundreds worked in "sweat shops," the same place and time of the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. From there, Waugh takes us to the financial disaster of "Black Tuesday" and the great Stock Market Crash of 1929.

Rather than depend on flashbacks, Waugh has Eleanor employing a private investigator in Reno, Nevada (also known as the divorce capital of America) to fill in the story about the past. When the owner of the agency dies, the new owner, his son Mathew, writes to her about it and casually invites her to meet with him, in order to help further the case. Mathew doesn't know who he's writing to, and only when Elena shows up does he recognize her as Eleanor Beecham. In this way, both the reader and the investigator slowly discover the truth, including why they changed their names and left their daughter behind. What's left unsaid to Mathew is told to us through Eleanor's private thoughts.

All this is a fascinating premise for a novel, with real-life events that change the lives of these fictional characters. This ready-made drama is heightened by their being placed in situations that force them to hide both their true feelings and their identities. This would be a strain on anyone, and is obviously contributing to their teetering marriage and the downturns to their careers. With so many opportunities for turmoil, after a slightly slow start, this novel quickly becomes a fast paced page-turner. Waugh also makes Max and Eleanor into characters that have far more depth than the typical tabloid personalities, making them sympathetic to the reader, using an elegant language style that mirrors the eras of the settings.

For such a story, one must know something about Hollywood. Despite her British origins, author Daisy Waugh is such an author. She learned about it first hand from her time as a screenwriter and journalist there. Drawing on this, Waugh obviously researched the era, and most of the historic information seems very accurate. The major events that form the borders of the story mix well together with the real actors of the time, the plot, and the events portrayed. What Waugh has achieved with this is a story with a timeless atmosphere, and that's not easy to achieve. The only exception to this was an aside regarding one real-life character which refers to an event several decades in the future. It might have been preferable to leave that out, but on the other hand, without this remark some people might not get the historical reference.

However, keeping things culturally accurate by using experts rather than personal knowledge and experience has its drawbacks. That Max/Matz and Eleanor/Elena are Jewish immigrants is historically correct for both Triangle and Hollywood. Waugh's injections of Yiddish (the language of Ashkenazi Jews) in the book also work well, because Matz and Elena are from Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, the uncorrected proof copy included many errors having to do with Jewish culture. Thankfully, according to the author, most of these were removed from the final hardcover publication. Still, it would be a good idea if Jewish readers wait for the paperback version, where all of those mistakes will be removed.

All told, this is a very interesting and well-written novel. The characters are likeable, and the timeframes and the settings are fascinating ones. Waugh's style also fits the era perfectly and she brings complex situations into focus without ever confusing the reader, with a tiny twist that keeps the ending from being clichéd. The uncorrected proof copy I received doesn't have the historical photographs at the end, but one can easily assume that the addition of those will draw readers even further into this story. For all of this, I can recommended this novel and give it a three and a half stars out of five. 

"Melting the Snow on Hester Street" by Daisy Waugh, published by Harper Collins, March 2013 is available from Amazon, Kobo Books (eReader formats), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery) and new or used from Alibris or Better World Books. I would like to thank the publishers for sending an uncorrected proof copy of this book for review. This is a version of my review that appeared on Curious Book Fans, Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady) and {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Out of the Ashes

An Unknown Woman by Jane Davis

When Anita and Ed's London home of nearly 15 years burns to the ground, taking everything they own with them, it ignites a brushfire through all of Anita's life, bringing everything she thought she was always so sure of into question for her. Suffering from what is probably PTSD, Anita goes off to stay with her parents in Liverpool, only to discover that even the familiar comfort of her parents and childhood aren't what she thought they were. More importantly, when she discovers the secret about her mother Patti, the destruction of her home seems suddenly almost inconsequential. In her latest novel, author Jane Davis brings us two masterful character studies of a mother and daughter, combined into one journey.

What do you do when something happens in your life that makes everything you've experienced until then seem like you've been living in a dream? How would you react if the things you thought were stable turned out to be transitory? How can you begin to look for clues to things you never noticed were happening? How can you begin to pick up the pieces when didn't realize things were broken to begin with? These "slap in the face" moments are what Davis delves into in this novel. That's a tall order to fill, but as stark and scary as these may seem, Davis approaches them with an amazing tenderness that peels away the fears and darkness.

Davis begins by investigating Anita, and the trauma of the fire that shakes her world. Although Anita still has Ed to lean on in this crisis, in the midst of the ruins, it becomes evident their relationship is more fragile than either realized. This leads Anita home to her parents Ron and Patti, where Davis then delves into their secrets. Of course, we expect to find the rawness underneath, and Davis delivers that in ever building circles of stress. Even so, Davis also remembers that healing begins after the wounds are completely clean. The cleaning process is the most painful part, and Davis approaches this as gently as possible.

What drew me into this story and the lives of these people is Davis's careful and gradual lighting of the dark corners in her character's lives through her calming prose. This is the perfect counterpoint to the shocks of the fire and revelations along the way, almost as if the writing style is ballast to the storm that's rocking Anita's life. Furthermore, if you think about it, there aren't any characters as antagonists here. Instead, the enemies are really the situations and events that disrupt these people's lives. Since there are no real "bad guys," we can find comfort in the idea that the triumph to overcome these problems will not come at the expense of the downfall of someone else. Because Davis inspires such deep empathy in her characters, and once invested, you hate to see any of them get hurt. Despite this, Davis also doesn't spare her characters from pain, making it even more touching.

Essentially, what Davis gives us here is an intensely human story that feels ripped from the pages of someone's personal diary, and then softened with expressively tender and graceful prose. This is not an easy story to read, but at the same time, it is ultimately captivating. Davis brings us into a realistic world with all of its stark realities and frustrations, shattering illusions along the way, while allowing us to feel that what may seem insurmountable isn't hopeless. Even so, there was one thing that didn't sit totally right with me, but to discuss it would mean including a spoiler, so I'll refrain from expanding on this. For all this, I can highly recommend this novel and I'm giving it four and a half stars out of five.

"An Unknown Woman" by Jane Davis, published by Createspace, released March 9, 2015 is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Smashwords, the Book Depository (free worldwide delivery) or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the author for sending me a copy of this novel for review.

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