Books in Summer: Part II

Okay. Now we have crossed the border between July and August. I am looking at some if these titles and am wondering what I am going to say. But sometimes it feels good to just tap the keys on the keyboard and look like I am saying something important like I am doing now. I totally wrote that totally fast. But alas, content is needed. Meaning is necessary and nobody cares about the speed of my typing…So onward to the first book of August…

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

This book was chosen as one for our book club, where we had the silly fantasy that we would actually be able to meet during the summer. It never happened, but I felt obliged to read the book anyway, never having missed one in the couple of years since I forced all my friends to join. I feel responsible. I do.

This is the story of a an old Ukrainian man who, after his wife dies, suddenly announces to his daughter that he is going to marry a young, buxom blonde from the Ukraine so that she can immigrate to England with the son. The old man is a dreamer, an engineer with the fervent idealism that can only have conceived of socialism. His daughters,  estranged since the death of their mother, come together to try and oust the hussy.

Family relations- one between sisters, husband and wife, daughter and father  – are showcased in this slim, easily read volume. There is nothing earth shattering here, although there are many very tragi/comic moments (when the father is dreaming of how it will be to rest his head on the ample bosom of his young new wife, for example). There are also secrets, the youngest daughter who was born after the war are not privy to, secrets that have shaped her family life and of which she is only finding out  now. In the end, they achieve a better understanding of themselves, if not complete acceptance. This would be a book, like the Guernsey Literary blah blah blah society, that I would recommend to my mother.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I read this one in a weekend so that I could go see the movie with my friend.  A quick and easy read, (also a book I would recommend to my mother- nice, heartwarming story with just a little dash of historical content) I liked it. I am sure by now everybody knows the story- a young white woman approaches the Help (all black) in her town of Jackson, Mississippi and with the background of the burgeoning civil rights movement, they tell their stories.

I’ve read reviews about ti that lament the liberty Stockett took mimicking the speech of the Mississippi maids, but having no experience with  Mississippi maids I didn’t notice.

Warning: it is most definitely a book that likes to manipulate your emotions- one of those puppeteer books (the movie was worse). I am always suspicious of books that do that – they feel less real when the moving parts are so pure. The evil white lady was a little too evil and the maids themselves were a little too meek. I don;t know. I’m suspicious, but am not willing to give it more thought than that. I will say it was a good summer read- fast, historically interesting and, like my tan these days, fades easily. I guess that wasn’t a glowing review was it?

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Okay. If The Help was emotionally manipulative, the mother in Shriver’s book about a boy who kills nine (I think) of his classmates is totally uncompromising. I swear, my brain was not screwed on right for days after reading it. This was also a book I ended up reading in a weekend- it was rainy and there were still people in my house and I needed to hide away- but I can’t say it was a fast, enjoyable read.

Written in the form of letters to her husband, the mother takes us through the whole story of their courtship, and the birth of her son all the way up to the present where she goes to visit him in the juvenile detention center. With unflinching honesty (god, what a cliché phrase, but it is true. It is unflinching. It is honest.) she recounts how she was deeply ambiguous about having kids and when her son was born was never able to create a connection with him. She tries to figure out what part of how her son turned out she is responsible for. A very haunting question indeed, one that haunts all parents.
There is a movie coming out soon about this book with Tilda Swinton as the mother and John C. Reilly as the father. It looks just as haunting as the book…

Audio Books

Blackout by Connie Willis

This book won the three major prizes in Science-Fiction in 2010: The Nebula, the Locus and the Hugo, and I have to admit, I am not sure why. This is the first volume of a diptych ( I think the next volume is All Clear), but it seemed more of a historical fiction with a dash of time travel (a very little dash in the first volume).

The story takes place in both 2050 (I think) and during the Blitz in London. Historians use the technology of time travel to go and study the past. But something has gone wrong and the historians (about four or five of them) are all stuck in London. Basically this whole volume is how they deal with not being able to get back to their time. The trains are late. They’re not able to get to the drop because of quarantine. They are detained at work.  In other words, hundreds of pages of logistical problems. Not exactly a soothing read, when life is full of those anyway. And besides, the whole future thing was dealt with in a very cursory fashion. When the historians are in the future, they rely on landlines and badly written phone messages to convey important missives from the drop-off station. What? Cell phones never existed? People still write hand-written messages instead of texting? I found this hard to deal with… But most of the novel takes place in London during WWII. The science-fiction part of the book is like the breasts on a Michaelangelo statue: tacked on as an afterthought.

I think I am going to have to read (or listen) the second volume, because the first leaves the reader in such a bad place ( I hate that), but I refuse to be happy about it.

The Master by Colm Toíbin

Now for something completely different. The Master is Toíbin’s hommage to the writer Henry James. He leads us through the latter years of Jame’s life from the devastating reception of his play, Guy Domville, in 1895 to….wait. I can’t remember where it ends. I am pretty sure it did not end with James’ death though. I think he left off at James’ house in Rye. I am pretty sure it ends before WWI- as it wasn’t mentioned and James’ died in 1916.

This is a slow, nuanced and textured read (or listen), that hints at James’ homosexuality through subtle comments and meaningful glances but is never explicitly stated. It also relies on flashbacks to talk about his different novels and the periods in James’ life that influenced them.

After all the post-apocalyptic craziness I have been into lately or all the heavy on the plot YA novels I read, this was a comforting salve. Beautifully written, meticulous as James’ personality, I would recommend this book to anyone who loves to lose themselves in the ornate, subtle and layered world of Henry James.

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

Also set partly in the latter part of the 19th century, partly in the present, The Prestige follows two rivaling magicians and the consequences of their feud for their families. Actually more science-fiction happens in this novel, where one of the illusions is not an illusion but an actual scientific phenomena via a machine invented by Nikola Tesla. Did you get that? An illusion that is not an illusion but whose illusion is in the pretending it is magic.

Yeah. Confusing. Still interesting. The Prestige takes us through the world of illusionists in the 19th century, from the frauds who do seances to the stage entertainers. In fact, teh rivalry between the two magicians begins when on of the magicians attends a seance at hi aunts and recognises the tricks of his trade. He is incensed that his craft is being used for such a nefarious purpose and vows to expose the fraud. When he does, he begins a feud that lasts for generations.

I enjoyed reading about the magic tricks and especially the parts with Nikola Tesla, but I have to say the reveal at the end, where we find out the big secret of the one magic act was a little confusing. Perhaps it was because I was listening to it and could not go reread it (oh, I could have rewinded it but I didn’t care that much) but the book suddenly ended without me feeling there was a good enough closure.

Graphic Novel

Bayou by Jeremy Love

I made the mistake of recommending this graphic novel to my daughter without having read it before. Bad choice. The novel begins in the south United States of the 1930s with a young, black girl who has to go fish a boy her age out of the bayou. The boy was killed for having whistled at a white woman. The young girl is friends with the local land owner’s white daughter and when the white daughter disappears her father is accused. The little girl makes friends with a giant who lives in the bayou and they are determined to go find the white girl. It ends in a very disturbing place and I have yet to read the conclusion. The illustrations are well done and the writing is good. This is a good graphic novel for older teens or ADULTs. Not ten year olds…

YA Fiction

The Salt Trilogy by Maurice Gee

This is one of the most original, sparsely written trilogies I have experienced in YA. The economical, non-sentimental style reminds me a lot of fairy tales, or allegories. They are fantasy in that they take place in an alternative world, but the dysfunctions of their society (like in the best fantasies) or distinctly human. Each novel of the trilogy attacks a different problem. And each novel begins with the next generation.

#1 Salt : Salt is the story of Hari, a poor, dark-skinned boy who lives in the cut-throat place of Blood Burrow and of Pearl, the daughter of a rich man who lives up the hill in Company. They find each other while escaping the city (Pearl to escape an unwanted marriage) and Hari to escape the guards who are looking for him and to rescue his father from his fate in Deep Salt, a forced work camp where never return. Both Pearl and Hari have developed the power to “speak”, that is, they can talk with people and animals inside their minds, without talking.

Both an environmental, socio-demographic allegory and a spiritual one, Salt explores themes of environmental devastation, the corrupt capitalist society and the gap between rich and poor as well as gives hope in the form of a connection with the world around us in the form of an inner communication. I know. That’s a lot for a small book to do, and yet Gee manages to do it very elegantly, with the simplest language.

#2 Gool personifies hate and violence in a creature that oozes out of nooks and crannies and eats everything around it: rock, plants, animals, people. It is threatening to eat the whole world. Hari has had the misfortune of coming in contact with the creature who has wrapped its grey tentacles around his neck and who will succeed in killing soon as well.  It is up to Xanthi and Lo, Hari and Pearl’s children, and Duro their friend, to find the secret of the Gool and kill it before it kills Hari.

#3 The Limping Man
(Reviewed from advanced reading copy provided by Librarything)

Power and how it corrupts is the them of Gee’s third volume in the Salt trilogy. The town is now under the control of a ruler who calls himself the Limping Man. He is a very powerful “speaker” (as Hari, Pearl and their children) and fears anyone who has the same power. So he makes people worship him by exerting his mind control over them.

The story opens with a distraught mother who is running back to her little hovel in the burrows to save her daughter. She manages to hide Hana and swallow frogsweed which kills her before the guards can take her away to be burned with the other “witches”. Hana escapes and finds Ben, the son of Lo and Hawk, a bird that she can communicate with. Together Ban and Hana must find the secret of the Limping Man’s power and stop him before he takes over the world.

Like the first two volumes, The Limping Man is written in sparse prose and allegorizes power. The Limping Man is a frail creature, weak, vain and afraid like most dictators and bullies. Hana and Ben are flawed characters- hardened by their own experiences of hardship and loss, but still able to find the reserves of courage to confront the Limping Man.

I would highly recommend this series to any kid (or adult) who enjoys well-written fantasy. I am even contemplating them as a read aloud for my ten year old- the story is beautifully written and would be a pleasure to read, and there are many themes that would be interesting to discuss with my kids.

Phew. Thus concludes the summer reading section. And just in time for September, which, if it continues like this, might have nothing in it…

One thought on “Books in Summer: Part II

  1. After reading your review of Short History, I decided to pass on it. Life's short and (no offense) I'm not your mother. Interesting that after reading this entry earlier today, I sat sandwiched between two women on the bus, both reading The Help. I'm glad you liked Toibin's The Master. When I read it, I felt immersed in James but found the language thankfully less archaic.

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