Wednesday, April 4, 2018

April Book Review Club: TESS OF THE ROAD

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@Barrie Summy

It's raining! The snow's washing away!

That's all I've got in my head right now. Sorry.

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By Rachel Hartman
Random House Books for Young Readers, 2018

Three years ago on this very blog, I turned myself into a pretzel trying to convey my delight in Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina duology, a pair of fantasies about a richly multicultural human/dragon society and an inspired young woman breaking free from convention.

Hartman’s at it again in TESS OF THE ROAD, set in the same world as the earlier books, and once again we’re all going nuts. (Four starred reviews!) Yet again the first book of a duology, TESS gives us another young woman held down by the stultifying conventions of Goredd, the most hidebound of nations. We watch her break free first physically, then psychologically and spiritually, on a road trip across borders and prejudices. Yet again, we are entranced.

I don’t think it’s necessary to have read the Seraphina books, although the events in them do predate this story and there might be some broader context missing. It’s fun recognizing old friends in the new book, but I suspect it would be just as much fun the other way around.

Tess is Seraphina’s younger stepsister, one of a pair of twins born to Seraphina’s father and a horrendous mother, intractably religious, snobby, and bigoted. The “bigoted” part mostly has to do with dragons, mathematically-minded philosophers who are able to assume a human form and co-exist uncomfortably with humans. In the first duology, the humans and dragons fell into a war, but that’s all over now.

Seventeen-year-old Tess is naturally rebellious, and has destroyed her social chances by losing her virginity (in what is essentially a date-rape) and becoming pregnant. Back home after giving birth, she becomes handmaiden to her lovely twin sister, hoping to win her a splendid court marriage that will save the family bacon. When the wedding day arrives she gets drunk and punches her new brother-in-law, so now she’s destined for the convent.

Instead, prodded by the unconventional Seraphina, she finds herself dressing as a boy and taking off down the road, seeking oblivion. She runs across her childhood friend Pathka, a small, intelligent, spiritually-minded dragon called a quigutl, whose race is particularly adept at inventing and fabricating technology in an otherwise medieval land. She joins his quest, searching for a giant, mythical serpent sacred to his race, keeping body and soul together through theft, cons, and manual labor.

Tess is a wonderful, difficult character, mired in self-hatred, always hearing her mother’s toxic, disapproving voice in her head. Watching her slow healing and release is a privilege and a triumph. Pathka is another marvel: tortured, loyal, irascible, brilliant. Maybe not such a great parent. (We meet his kid.)

This book doesn’t have the broad political sweep of the Seraphina books, although it looks like the second book might. Seraphina had a personal quest, but also she was trying to save the world. I missed the saarantrai, the exotic, conflicted dragons in human form, pursuing mathematical order despite the perplexities of human emotions. But Tess and Pathka’s quest, and what they found at the end of it, more than made up for any loss.

Marvelous, marvelous book.

(Dear FCC: I bought this book with my own money, because how could I not? Nobody cares if I review it. Hey . . . how about that Sinclair Broadcast Group? Isn’t monopoly supposed to be a bad thing?)

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

March Book Review Club--BORN A CRIME

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@Barrie Summy

Hello. It's supposed to be almost spring but Maine has a nor'easter bearing down on us that could give us 18 inches of snow. I think the storm will have wreaked havoc for much of the East, kinda like the one we had a few days ago. Feel like putting your sense of grievance in perspective, and laughing your head off at the same time? Read on. 

Also, don't forget to click the icon for more reviews!

By Trevor Noah
Spiegel & Grau, 2016

In 1984, when South Africa’s apartheid regime was in full clamp-down, a spirited young Xhosa woman called Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah decided she wanted to have a baby with the guy down the hall, a Swiss/German named Robert. This was a crime that could send both of them to prison and their baby to an orphanage. She went ahead and did it anyway.

The baby turned out to be comedian Trevor Noah, now the anchor of The Daily Show on Comedy Central. He opens his memoir with a reproduction of the 1927 Immorality Act, which made “carnal intercourse” illegal between a European and a “native.” 

Later, he describes walking down the street with his mother at age six, his father across the street pretending he didn’t know them. Because he was light-skinned, his mother had to pretend she was his nursemaid when they were out in public.

There were perks, though. When Trevor and his mom were staying in Soweto with her mother, Trevor did something “naughty” (a big word in his life) for which his cousins were punished but he was not. “I don’t know how to hit a white child,” his grandmother explained.

He never fit in anywhere: at school with the white kids or even with the “colored” kids (Indian and other nonwhite, non-black races) who looked most like him.  

Noah’s remarkable mother helped him turn his oddity into an advantage. She made him speak English—the key to getting ahead in South Africa—but also Xhosa and Zulu and Sotho and Tswana and Afrikaans. Noah tended to walk on the wild side throughout his youth—“naughty” was putting it mildly—but if he was about to get beat up, he could disarm his attacker by unexpectedly speaking his language.

“I became a chameleon” he writes. “My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.”

If you like your memoirs linear, this one will drive you nuts. It’s a collection of stories, jumping back and forth in time, about the funny, harrowing, weird, horrifying experience of growing up in South Africa and doing it as Trevor Noah. The writing is wonderful, as you’d expect, and Noah can’t help being funny, or at least wry, even when he’s telling you about the time his mom almost died. It’s a total page-turner.

The day five-year-old Trevor decided to avoid the rain-soaked outhouse and do his business on a newspaper in the kitchen—leading his female relatives to think the house is demon-infested—is comedic gold.

There’s anger under the comedy—how could there not be? And you’re always off balance, reading this book. Because it jumps around in time, you’re always stepping back and thinking, “Okay, so this was when they lived in that suburb, right?” That’s actually a good thing—this was not a childhood in which anyone should get comfy.

But possibly the weirdest thing about BORN A CRIME is the detachment of the author. We see him beaten, jailed, humiliated, and also triumphant, but none of it ever hits you in the heart and lungs. It’s entertaining as all get out, but you’re in no danger of weeping.

If you were going to survive this life and become Trevor Noah, I guess you’d have to be well armored.

(Dear FCC: I got this for my beloved for Christmas, or maybe his birthday, can’t remember which. They’re close together, which I believe I’ve told you before can be a real pain in the prat. I don’t recall getting any sympathy from you, though. )

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

January Book Review Club--GLASS HOUSES

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@Barrie Summy

Happy New Year! Big storm coming here in the East, and more grueling temperatures. (On the other hand, my friend Lilly in Australia is sitting in 122 degrees F. Count your blessings.)

Either way, time to hunker down with a good book. Don't forget to click the icon above for more reviews!

By Louise Penny
St. Martin’s Press, Minotaur, 2017

A bitterly cold week between Christmas and New Year’s. A political fray you’re loathe to re-enter. A writing deadline, but you can’t write ALL day, can you?

This is the perfect situation for a visit to Three Pines, the mythical Québec village Louise Penny created twelve years and twelve books ago. Penny’s a master at creating characters, and Three Pines is one of them. Armand Gamache, now the chief superintendent of the Sûréte du Québec, is another. Nothing heals the soul like spending time with them.

In GLASS HOUSES, which came out just too late for my August birthday but in plenty of time for Christmas, Penny is at her best. I’m going to re-read this book as a primer in building suspense. The writers among us will be not even slightly surprised to know that Penny wrote it during and after her ailing husband’s final illness. She was in touch with every nerve ending in the universe, and it shows.

Three Pines is a little like Cabot Cove in the late, appalling television series “Murder, She Wrote.” (Except for the horrendous Maine accents and the ocean on the wrong side, but I digress.) The crime rate per capita is about two-to-one. If a villager isn’t buying the farm, some beleaguered somebody from away manages to stumble there before croaking. Somehow this never seems odd.

This is the thirteenth time Supt. Gamache, an accomplished, urbane, seemingly gentle man who in recent books keeps trying to retire, has followed the murders to Three Pines. At this point, he and his estimable wife, Reine-Marie, have actually moved there, looking for peace and quiet they never seem to get. They are part of the village’s fabric, along with a famous artist, a bookstore owner, a baker, a male couple who run a bistro and B&B, and a wizened, evil-tongued poet (also famous, to those with taste) who has a duck under her arm and the vocabulary of a drunken sailor. Everybody cooks well—Penny loves describing food that makes you watch the clock for dinner—and they know how to make one another comfortable even when they’re at each others’ throats.

The books are anything but comfy. Penny does not hesitate to kill or maim people you’ve come to like—you can’t trust her not to break your heart, which of course makes the suspense unbearable. She’s equally unprincipled with her characters’ psyches—there isn’t a person in Three Pines, in Gamache’s family, or among his close colleagues who isn’t deeply scarred by personal disaster.  

GLASS HOUSES makes profligate use of those scars. It’s impossible to say much about the plot without spoiling the fun: The book starts with Gamache as witness for the prosecution in a murder trial with a mysteriously unidentified defendant and a prosecutor working hard to discredit his own star witness.  Over time, we learn that Gamache is risking his family, his village, his reputation, and possibly his freedom for a higher end. He’s morally wrong in just about every way—upsetting, because until now he’s been your moral compass. There are physical dangers, psychic horrors, a ticking clock, and a black-cloaked figure standing still and silent on the Three Pines green, apparently there for vengeance. I tell you, this tale’s got it all.

Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? I promise you it isn’t. And if you want a master course in character, setting, and suspense, this is your book.

(Dear FCC: I got GLASS HOUSES for Christmas. I’d suggest you read it, but Three Pines is close to the Vermont border and I think you might be insulted by the sly references to U.S. politics. These include a warning about the vigilance required to prevent a government from turning fascist. There’s nothing about this book that isn’t chilling.) 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

December Book Review Club: A Gentleman in Moscow

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@Barrie Summy


Don't forget to click the icon above for more reviews. See you in the New Year . . . 

By Amor Towles
Viking, 2016

In 1922, an insouciant Moscow aristocrat appears before the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. As a threat to Communist ideals, he should be executed. Fortunately, he is the author of a celebrated 1913 poem many viewed as a call to revolution, so his sentence is relaxed. Instead of dying, he is ordered to spend the rest of his life in the formerly luxurious Metropol Hotel, where he has occupied a suite for the previous four years.

“Make no mistake,” the presiding officer concludes, “should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot. Next matter.”

The record of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov’s appearance before the committee, set in a utilitarian typewriter font, occupies the first three pages of A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW. Having heard little about the book, only that it was wonderful, I read this, decided the book might be depressing, and set it aside for a day when I didn’t need cheering up. (ARE there such days anymore? If you read newspapers, I mean.)

I could not have been more wrong. This book isn’t only wonderful. It’s delightful.

Everything depends on the character of Rostov: beautifully educated, well-traveled, urbane, amused, and kind. He reacts to his sentence as many of us would, welcoming it as a chance to get some reading done. Ejected from his suite and relegated to a tiny room in the attic with all his books and a few beloved bits of antique furniture, he settles down to read his father’s copy of Montaigne’s essays. We are with him intimately as he slogs through page after page, watching the clock. The book turns out to be the perfect size for propping up a wobbly chest of drawers.

Life awaits outside his attic room. Even in an era of revolutionary seediness, the Metropol’s staff manages to approximate the days of old. There’s a barber, a seamstress, kitchen staff, wait staff, concierge, and other residents, mostly party officials and their families. It’s a whole world, and we fling ourselves into it without a hint of claustrophobia.  

The crux of the story arrives with Nina, the nine-year-old daughter of some commissar living in the hotel. She has a skeleton key that opens every door, but better yet she has attitude. Before long, Rostov is a partner in crime, exploring forbidden rooms in the cellars or splitting the seat of his pants to eavesdrop on a party committee. He becomes Nina’s confidant and protector, and when she is a grown-up party functionary he renders her a service that changes both their lives.
Our narrator takes us outside the Metropol occasionally, but we’re always happy to return. By the end of the book, we could find our way up the stairs and through the halls blindfolded, and we want to spend as much time as possible with Rostov and his cohabitants. There’s everything in the Metropol: quiet humor, slapstick, love, sex, friendship, intrigue, and a hidden pair of dueling pistols that wait an entire book to live up to Chekhov’s instructions. (“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”)
A less depressing book you will never find.
(Dear FCC: I got this book for my birthday. Nobody cares if I review it. Now, about net neutrality . . . )

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

October Book Review Club: NORSE MYTHOLOGY

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@Barrie Summy

I'm in the midst of helping to organize Word, a literary arts festival debuting in Blue Hill, Maine, October 20-22. (Check it out here:  Life is fraught, so it's nice to settle down at night with a wolf who wants to eat the moon. Also to read about Ragnarok, which is so awful it seems churlish to complain about October's dying of the light. 

Anyway, read on, and don't forget to click the icon above for more reviews. Happy Halloween! 

By Neil Gaiman
W.W. Norton & Co, 2017

For those of dinosaur mentality, Thomas Bulfinch is the go-to source for news about Thor and Odin and Loki. (Not to mention Arthur, Charlemagne, and all those Greek guys.) Forget Marvel Comics. Forget Chris Hemsworth. For us, 1881 is where it’s at. (Being a modern, can-do woman, my edition of Bulfinch dates from 1913.)

That’s all changed now.

For future generations, Neil Gaiman’s NORSE MYTHOLOGY may very well be the definitive version. He tells the stories straight—this is not AMERICAN GODS or ANANSI BOYS, the novels that made his name by bringing gods to life. But he’s a marvelous writer, far more graceful and giving than Bulfinch. And he knows these guys well, especially Thor and Loki, the best (maybe the only) real characters.  He says he’s been obsessed with these gods since the age of seven.

He’s comfortable sharing the character insights he’s gleaned. “That was the thing about Loki,” he notes after the trickster has provided the gods with their hallmark treasures but cheated to do it. “You resented him even when you were at your most grateful, and you were grateful to him even when you hated him the most.”

Where Bulfinch devotes a paragraph to the god Frey’s courtship of the beautiful giantess Gerda, Gaiman gives us nine pages, introducing the love story by telling us, charmingly, that handsome and mighty Frey “was missing something in his life , and he did not know what it was.”

To win Gerda, Frey gives up his sword, a magical weapon so powerful it can fight by itself. The story ends with ominous regret. “Ragnarok is coming. When the sky splits asunder and the dark powers of Muspell march out on their war journey, Frey will wish he still had his sword.”

These are fun and funny stories, but they are not cheery. They never have been. When gods have children, they’re likely to come out weird—Loki’s include the Midgard Serpent, the snake that encircles the human world; Hel, the half-girl/half-corpse who runs the underworld; and Fenrir, the giant wolf who wants to eat the sun and moon. Ragnarok, the final battle between gods and giants that will end everything in fire and fury, is always looming, although supposedly the world is reborn after the cataclysm. (Hollow reassurance, since we’ll all be dead.)

Writing in The Guardian last March, Ursula K. Le Guin complained that, while Gaiman’s humor and fluent writing make these Norse stories suitable for children as well as adults, he minimizes the “strangeness” of the religion being depicted, with its bleak view of the world and its future. “I felt sometimes that this vigorous, robust, good-natured version of the mythos gives us everything but the very essence of it, the heart.”

I can see her point from a scholar’s perspective, and I did feel a certain lack of red meat here, despite Hel the half-corpse.  But I’m glad Gaiman opted for accessibility.  He’s clearly written the tales to be read aloud, one at a time—he keeps repeating facts from two tales ago, in case we’re reading one a night and have forgotten who’s who.

These are wonderful stories and, with the Greek myths, form the basis for much of European culture. Gaiman is helping to keep them alive in something close to their pre-Hemsworth form. And for that I’m grateful.

(Dear FCC: I borrowed this book from the Friend Memorial Public Library, Brooklin, Maine. They want it back. I have to buy my own— it’s one of those books you like to have around. It can go on top of that stack on the floor over there. If you have any spare bookshelves, FCC, please send them along.)

Thursday, September 7, 2017

September Book Review Club: Golden Hill

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@Barrie Summy

We're having infrastructure issues here at Desperation Acres. Internet outage first, then a power outage this morning. The joys of rural life. Nevertheless, we persist. Here's the first review of the 2017-18 season. Don't forget to click the link for more reviews!

By Francis Spufford
Scribner (Simon & Schuster), 2016

If TOM JONES novelist Henry Fielding traveled from the 18th century, acquired a 21st century sensibility and approach to novel-writing, he’d try very hard to write GOLDEN HILL. It may be, though, that only Francis Spufford could actually do it.  A celebrated writer of nonfiction ( I MAY BE SOME TIME and RED PLENTY, for example), he admits to having “come close to being a novelist” while turning, say, Britain’s obsession with icy places into a page-turner. Now, he says, “I’ve completed my shy, crabwise crawl towards fiction.”

GOLDEN HILL reads as an exuberant, occasionally raunchy adventure in the Manhattan of 1746, just like Fielding and friends except that the narrator doesn’t sidetrack into unrelated topics for pages and pages. Also, this novel has a very modern set of teeth in it.

Our story begins when a youngish man, known to us chiefly as Mr. Smith, arrives in New York with a promissory note for a thousand pounds, which he aims to cash at a counting house run by a Mr. Lovell. Consternation ensues: Is this promissory note real, or is Smith a con man? If it is real, there’s not enough cash in all of New York to pay off the note, even if you combine the available coins (Mexican, Portugese, Dutch, Danish and so on) with the more common paper money printed by New York, Rhode Island, or any of the colonies.

Smith is charming enough to be a con man. But he’s clearly well educated and widely traveled, a man of parts who could perfectly well be a sprig of the nobility. In fact, he does agree to wait for verification of his note on the next ship from London, as an honest man would.
And off he goes into the streets of New York.

Manhattan is practically a village at this point. Dutch and English live side by side, more or less in harmony. Smith notices that people are much healthier than in London, taller, well fed, and with fewer smallpox scars. He also notices the black slaves, which seem to be more prevalent than in England.

He notices the slaves a lot. They’re important to him. We don’t find out why until the story is three-quarters done, and the full tale emerges only in the last pages. Even the narrator’s identity is a surprise left to the end. The author is canny about the way he keeps us on tenterhooks, doling out a hint here, an insight there. You know you’re being played and you love it.

Being the talk of the town, Smith soon is embroiled in New York politics. He starts a romance, playing Benedick to her Beatrice. He finds out potentially fatal secrets. Is nearly killed by a mob that thinks he’s a papist. Is imprisoned for this and that, stands trial, betrays his own ethics.

In other words, he is extremely entertaining. So is this book. I hope Mr. Spufford sticks to novel- writing.

(Dear FCC: This book was a birthday present, chosen by my beloved with help from Samantha Haskell of Blue Hill Books. All hail the independent bookstore. Also beloveds.)

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Delayed Gratification (almost entirely my own)

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@Barrie Summy

Unforeseen circumstances are delaying this month's review. Check back tomorrow.

Sneak preview: GOLDEN HILL, a historical novel by Francis Spufford, is a splendid confection with a good, hard center.