Saturday, October 29, 2016

Perfecting your Good-bye

And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Fredrik Backman

Stock up on tissues folks, because Fredrik Backman is BACK! This time, Backman gives us a perfectly formed, exquisitely developed novella (whose title is almost longer than the book itself) about a man slowly succumbing to dementia and his relationship to his grandson Noah. Together, these two go on a journey of remembering and forgetting, of fantasy and reality, where Noah's father, Ted (Grandpa's son) and Grandpa's wife drift in and out of the story.

If you've ever had someone close to you suffer and die from Alzheimer's, you might think that this book would be too painful to read. However, my father died of Alzheimer's and although I found myself moved to tears throughout this book, I also found it to be very comforting. This is mostly due to Backman reimagining his Land-of-Almost-Asleep from his second novel, "My Grandmother" with a similar idea for Grandpa and Noah.

This time, instead of building a fantasy, fairy-tale world, with creatures, villains and superheroes, Backman creates a type of shared dream where Grandpa and Noah can connect. This is an imaginary space, described as a square (as in "an open area surrounded by buildings in a town, village, or city," and not the geometric shape), which holds images and places from Grandpa's memories and past, including his dead wife. You may notice that the three generations here, Noah, Ted and Grandpa, also sounds somewhat similar to the triangle of female characters in Backman's "My Grandmother." This parallel didn't bother me, particularly because in "My Grandmother" most of the action takes place after the grandmother dies. This story, however, is about people making their way together towards an inevitable end.

What makes this so comforting is the idea of connecting two people - metaphorically, of course - together with the bits and pieces that remain of the Grandpa's memories. Some of the most touching of passages are when Grandpa is talking with Grandma or thinking of her, and then talks to Noah about her. Some of the saddest parts are when we realize that the square keeps getting smaller, along with Grandpa's losing of his memories, along with Noah's difficulty in accepting or understanding what is happening. Together, these made me feel like, despite the fact that forgetting things causes confusion and even anger in reality; maybe there are still those times when the best things from a person's live are still alive somewhere within those slowly fading synapses.

While all this sounds fascinating, what keeps this from becoming maudlin and makes it so incredible is the ethereal quality Backman instills in this little story, combined with the quiet, gentle poetry that practically floats across this narrative from beginning to end. (Oh, and by the way, that ending is so so subtle it will astound you). This is where Backman shines, and makes you want to reach out and hug him for allowing us to revel in his talent (and in the blessing that is his translator) with each new story. Unquestionably, this book deserves a full five stars, and I cannot recommend it more heartily than that.

"And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer" by Fredrik Backman, released November 1, 2016 by Atria Books/Simon & Schuster is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, iTunes (iBook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Gathering of Stories

November Storm: A Collection of Short Stories by Robert Oldshue.

The Iowa University Press describes this Iowa Short Fiction award winner of 2016, as follows:

In each of the stories in Robert Oldshue’s debut collection, the characters want to be decent but find that hard to define. In the first story, an elderly couple is told that delivery of their Thanksgiving dinner has been canceled due to an impending blizzard. Unwilling to have guests but nothing to serve them, they make a run to the grocery, hoping to get there and back before the snow, but crash their car into the last of their neighbors. In “The Receiving Line,” a male prostitute tricks a closeted suburban schoolteacher only to learn that the trick is on him. In “The Woman on the Road,” a twelve-year-old girl negotiates the competing demands of her faith and her family as she is bat mitzvahed in the feminist ferment of the 1980s. The lessons she learns are the lessons learned by a ten-year-old boy in “Fergus B. Fergus,” after which, in “Summer Friend,” two women and one man renegotiate their sixty-year intimacy when sadly, but inevitably, one of them gets ill. “The Home of the Holy Assumption” offers a benediction. A quadriplegic goes missing at a nursing home. Was she assumed? In the process of finding out, all are reminded that caring for others, however imperfectly—even laughably—is the only shot at assumption we have.

This blurb is an excellent overview and assessment of this collection, and I believe that commonality in a book of short fiction helps give an overall cohesiveness to the book, which sometimes allows for a collection to almost feel like a novel (or in this case, due to its length, a novella). However, despite this underlying theme, Oldshue gives us stories that are for the most part, very different one from the other. In this way, Oldshue investigates several different aspects of what wanting to be decent is, for various types of characters. I found that totally commendable, as well as fascinating, and something Oldshue fully succeed in achieving.

Content and theme aside, the question is, was Oldshue successful in mastering the art form of the short story. I have always believed that the shorter (and/or more restrictive, and/or more concise) the form, the harder it is to accomplish. On the surface, Oldshue's style seems be one where the narrator goes off into tangents and back-stories, which seem unrelated to the story's main point. Fortunately, Oldshue has perfected the knack of slipping back to the main story at just the right moment before he's lost the plot. Shortly after that, Oldshue gives us a closing line that seems to be slightly on the obscure side, but after you think about it, is actually very pointed. While some may think this a cliché for the short story form, if executed properly, this can really work magically well, and I think Oldshue has this down pat.

Another thing that impressed me was the everyday language and seemingly casual voice, that Oldshue employs here. Using this, Oldshue speaks to the hearts of his readers, giving us a witty anthology, which at turns is both poignant and insightful. Finally, Oldshue also succeed in rendering both male and female voices for his protagonists, with natural realism. More importantly, Oldshue even portrays young people without making them sound either too childish or excessively precocious. This is one of my pet peeves, and I'm always pleased to read fiction that doesn't fall into either of those traps.

The only problem I had with this collection was that while most of the stories were very compelling, others didn't quite match that quality, and rambled on for a little too long. In particular, I wasn't sure I understood why Oldshue included some of the action in the story "Fergus B. Fergus," which slowed the pace too much for my taste, and some of it didn't seem to connect with the story's point. In addition, in "Summer Friend," we get two main protagonists plus another important minor one. This larger cast of characters proved problematic and I think he should have given us just a little less of their back-stories, which would have made this story more effective. However, these are my only niggles, so I can assure you that I still recommend this collection and believe it deserves four and a half stars out of five.

"November Storm" by Robert Oldshue published by Iowa University Press, released October 1, 2016 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Women witnessing WWII

The Race for Paris by Meg Waite Clayton

Near the end of When World War II, journalists and photojournalists from allied countries had only one thing on their minds - to be the first ones to document the victory of retaking Paris. Among them were women who braved life and limb to "make their careers" by achieving this feat. Meg Waite Clayton's latest novel follows two fictional women attempting to be the first journalists to chronicle this allied victory.

Okay, so I'm a sucker for books about women doing amazing things, or being strong and forthright during times when people expected them to be demure and pretty, in the background. This is exactly that type of book. Waite Clayton follows two women here - Olivia (aka Liv or Livvie) and Jane. These two women are very different. Olivia comes from privilege and money, while Jane is the daughter of a cook and servant to a wealthy family. Despite this, they find themselves together in France, Liv with her cameras and Jane with her typewriter, trying to cover what they hope will be the end of the war. 

One thing that struck me about this story was that Waite Clayton decided to invent two fictional characters for this novel, instead of fictionalizing real women who actually joined their male colleagues in chronicling these historical events. Of course, Waite Clayton does disburse quotes from both male and female journalists and photojournalists from this time into the text, as well as refer to them from time to time, but we hardly ever get to "meet" any of these real people inside her story. The disadvantage of doing this is that the story felt less connected to the reality of the events, if only somewhat. On the other hand, the advantage is that this freed Waite Clayton to expand her imagination to its fullest. {NOTE - see update below}

The question is, which one makes for a more compelling novel - something where the fiction imagines scenarios for real people using facts, or something where the facts of an era intertwine with fictional characters? The former requires much more research, since the author needs understand both the circumstances they're writing about, as well as the real-life people in the story - even when they're fictionalizing events meant to fill in the blanks of the records. The latter still requires some research, but the author can delve more into creating their characters while allowing them do things that no real historical person actually did. As far as I'm concerned, I think I prefer the former.

However, even though she employed the latter, I believe that Waite Clayton did a truly lovely job with this novel. She created extremely sympathetic characters and placed them into a plot that was both complex and realistic enough to make us anxious to read on to see what happened to them. Her straightforward style has just the right amounts of imagery to help the reader feel connected to the places and events, without feeling overwhelmed. In fact, some of the scenes are amazingly vivid and realistic, but thankfully, they stop just short of being gory. Most importantly, all these elements connect carefully to make the overall feel of this book both three dimensional and honest. For all this, I think I can easily recommend this novel with a strong rating of four and a half out of five stars. 

UPDATE: You will see in the comments below one from the author. She wrote:
The answer to why fictional characters is that I wanted to be able to collect a lot of different experiences from a lot of different journalists, and share the most compelling in one story. Quite sure I did far more research on this one than I would have needed to do to deliver the story of any one of the journalists mentioned in the front, for which the novel is definitely meant to be an homage. 
My reply to this is - excellent point! It didn't occur to me that Waite Clayton used many real women, and then made them into composites to develop these two characters. I therefore stand corrected. This type of approach certainly needs as much, if not more research than just designing totally fictional characters and placing them into real, historic situations.  Thank you, Meg, for that clarification.

"The Race for Paris" by Meg Waite Clayton published by Harper, released August 2015 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Not a blueprint!

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

(Note: This is my 200th book review! To celebrate this, I thought it only right it should be about a classic novel. This also gives me the opportunity to throw in a bit of politics, which my readers know I've completely avoided using this blog for until now.)

Most people have heard of, if not read, this speculative fiction book by Margaret Atwood. For those who don't know, this is a dystopian story of what Atwood imagined could happen if men took total dominance over women, and relegated them to being only wives, servants and baby-making machines. Originally published in 1985, this novel was a way for Atwood to fictionalize her own social commentary after observing increasing Christian fundamentalism that included no small amount of anti-women rhetoric.

Before I go any further, I should note that I was a bit late to this party. I only read this novel this past year, although I've long wanted to read it. When I needed audio books to "read" while recovering from surgery on my eyelids, this was my first choice. A choice I do not regret in the least, including the fact that I found Clare Danes' voice to be particularly appropriate to read the protagonist Offred's account of her ordeals in the Republic of Gilead. In fact, the natural strain and worry that Danes' voice has (which sometimes annoyed me while watching her in Homeland), was what made her reading this book so effective. For this alone, I could give this book a full five stars, but of course, there are many more reasons why it deserves top marks.

First, this book, despite its age, is no less relevant today than it was in 1985. In fact, I urge you to listen to this interview with her from the BBC, which proves this very point. Note her answer when she's asked if she didn't over speculate as to how bad it could get if the religious right were to take hold. However, the point isn't if she's predicted a real possibility or not. No, the point is how Atwood portrays this with such amazing subtlety, that it is a wonder to behold. You see, most of the story focuses on Offred's personal account of being a handmaid, a woman taken from her home and forced to become a surrogate to produce offspring for a wealthy childless couple. At the same time, Atwood slips the back-story of how society evolved into such an oppressive state into only a couple of passages sprinkled throughout the book. These are very telling, remarkably pointed, and frankly, very scary. Let me quote from this book to prove this point.

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.

Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.

I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, just like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?

That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on.

After a couple of lines, she adds this:

Things continued in that state of suspended animation for weeks, although some things did happen. Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said. The roadblocks began to appear, and Identipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn't be too careful. They said that new elections would be held, but that it would take some time to prepare for them. The thing to do, they said, was to continue on as usual.

Now, combine this with her more recent speculative fiction novel, The Heart Goes Last, that includes her vision of how an oligarchy can find a "solution" to the crime, poverty, unemployment and homelessness problems, and you have yourself the type of society that certain elements in today's America might see as the perfect "wet dream" for the country's future.

I'm not saying that this will happen, but I must admit that there have been statements made throughout the present election campaign, that point to my wondering if someone isn't actually reading Atwood to get some nasty ideas. With people excusing misogyny, seriously calling to repeal the 19th Amendment (which gave women the right to vote), and the increasing xenophobia, Islamophobia and general racism, isn't something like this just remotely possible? Furthermore, when I read articles like this or this (and sadly, these are just from today), I think that Atwood is right, "Somebody has to tell the Republicans the Handmaid's Tale is not a blueprint." For that matter, we need to keep them away from "The Heart Goes Last" as well.

Leaving politics aside (as much as possible), I want to emphasize that Atwood's genius is in viewing the real world, and imagining where the wrong direction could take us. Using that as a basis of her books, she attempts to warn us how these paths could wind up damaging society as a whole. The question is, will we listen and take heed, or will we allow someone to twist Atwood's vivid imagination to bring about a real-life dystopia? I'm hoping it will be the former, and of course, this book deserves a full five stars out of five - for both the content, and the excellent audio version.

"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (your purchase contributes to world-wide literacy) as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

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