Friday, January 27, 2017

After the Dam by Amy Hassinger (Red Hen Press, 2016)

Last year my oldest son bought me a lovely Moleskine book journal, where I've been keeping careful track of all the volumes I read.  Unfortunately, that has meant that my book blog has suffered terrible neglect, which is a shame.  Thankfully, my dear friend Joy sent me a copy of the latest novel by her writing teacher, novelist Amy Hassinger, which is a wonderful reason to sit down and write a new post for my blog; not many of the books I add to my journal feel like they merit an entire blog post, but "After the Dam" certainly does.

"After the Dam" follows young mother Rachel as she leaves home in the middle of the night with her baby to drive north to her grandmother's idyllic house on a lake in Wisconsin, in a desperate attempt to regain a feeling of normalcy in her disjointed life.  Unfortunately at the lake house she is confronted not only with unusually heavy rains and threats of the nearby dam flooding, but also with her dying grandmother, and her grandmother's caretaker, Diane, who seems to stand in the way of everything Rachel wants, including perhaps rekindling an old relationship.

Like a previous novel by Amy Hassinger that I wrote about here, there are myriad themes in this book that mean a lot to me on a personal level.  One of the things that struck me immediately was the very large role that breastfeeding plays in the novel.  In the very first chapter we learn that breastfeeding makes the main character, Rachel, feel "magical, like Wonder Woman".  "She was absurdly proud of this achievement - of feeding her child - prouder than she was of almost any other accomplishment in her life thus far."  Having experienced just this feeling myself, when I read these lines I felt that physical zing of recognition that sometimes occurs when a novel really rings true.  And breastfeeding continues to play a major role in the book.  No matter how much the reader might question Rachel's judgement at certain points in the story and despite her own doubts about whether or not she is a good mother, whether or not she is making the right choices with regards to her baby (sometimes obviously not), breastfeeding is the one unequivocal thing that Rachel gets right all the time, and is rightfully proud of.

Being a mother is another major theme in this novel that hits home for me.  Not only do we have Rachel as a young inexperienced mother, trying to reconcile her desire to fully devote herself to her child and her feeling that she is failing miserably at the societal expectation to combine it with a meaningful career, there is Diane, an older, seasoned mother, whose main focus in life is protecting her grown son, Rachel's ex-boyfriend Joe, from what she sees as their destructive relationship, and doing everything she can to keep Rachel away from Joe.  What I loved about what Hassinger did with Diane is that she did not demonize her.  Diane is diametrically opposed to everything that Rachel is seeking in the novel; it would have been easy to make her a villain.  Instead, Hassinger makes Diane a character of flesh and blood and real feelings, and I found myself sympathizing with her a lot of the time.  Diane, too, is a character who is pulled in different directions.  Loyalty to her employer, Rachel's grandmother Maddy, loyalty to her son, loyalty to her desire to live her own independent live in her own cozy home.  Diane also struggles to fit the puzzle pieces of her life together, as Rachel does, as so many women do.   But Diane's age and experience allow her to see her life from a perspective that Rachel does not yet have:

That was the way of it, she thought.  You spent your youth and most of your adult years climbing that upward rise, feeling the powerful momentum beneath you, carrying you up and up, believing that things will continue in just this way, despite any evidence to the contrary.  And then one day, the momentum changed. You found that you were on the far side of the crest, and you were falling now, falling quickly, and everything you'd learned about how to live, how to be in the world, what to strive for - all of this was changed.  You could feel the undercurrent pulling you downward, gravity asserting itself, claiming you, and you knew, moment to moment, that the rise had crested and you hadn't even known it.  And that now you were headed toward shore, where you would thin into nothing, until all that would be left of you was a sheen of moisture on the face of the lake stones. (p. 240)

And just so you don't get the wrong idea from the above meditation on life and ageing..."After the Dam" is not a woo-woo spiritual book!  It has a strong ecological message and a didactic mission: Hassinger has really done her homework about dams and their environmental impact, and shares this skillfully and organically throughout the book via the lives and careers of the characters.  Finally, the book is also a well plotted thriller; as I got to the end of it I could not put it down for fear of what was going to happen.  In my Moleskine journal I gave this book five stars; I highly recommend it and will be choosing it as the selection for my book club when it's my turn to pick the book again.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop (2014)

This was a pick by a member of my book club.  I hadn't heard of the author, so a new discovery for me.    The story takes place in 1974 in Cyprus.

Aphroditi and her husband, Savvas, are the proud owners of the most luxurious hotel in the resort town of Famagusta, The Sunrise.   All of their time and money is invested in making the hotel profitable and successful, which puts a heavy burden on their marriage.   Savvas' right hand man, Markos, is essential to the business, and yet Savvas takes him for granted, just as he does his wife.  This leads to the inevitable and somewhat predictable affair between the two.

What is not predictable, however, but historically accurate, is the unstable political situation that leads to an armed conflict and the flight of 40,000 people out of the city.  I always knew that Cyprus was divided into two parts, Greek and Turkish, but never really knew the details; this book was an opportunity to discover the sad history behind this recent conflict.

What is unique about the book is that the story stays behind in Famagusta after most everyone has fled, following two families, one Greek and one Turkish, who initially hide and stay behind in their homes, and then move into The Sunrise, keeping out of sight of the occupying Turkish soldiers and somehow managing to survive for a time.  They also have to manage their initial distrust of each other, coming from opposite sides of the cultural divide.  They soon find they have much more in common than they they thought.  Their experiences are fascinating and frightening, the characters are given more depth than in the beginning of the book, and this is by far the best part of the novel.

Eventually the situation becomes too precarious for the families and they have to find a way to get out.  The novel follows the cast of characters through 2014, which is a nice treat, as I often finish a book wishing I knew what happened to the characters during the rest of their lives.  Getting through the more predictable beginning of the book was worth it for the second half, but I don't think I would have chosen to read this if it hadn't been for book club.  Nevertheless I am glad I did.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Beyond Borders: Stories of Yunnanese Chinese Migrants of Burma by Wen-Chin Chang (2014)

Last year my friend Wen-Chin Chang published this book based on the anthropological research she has been doing on Chinese migrants in Burma and Thailand for the past 20 years.  Published by Cornell University Press, this is most certainly an academic book; however, it is not a dry theoretical text.  As the title promises, it is a collection of individual stories of real people's lives that she has collected over the years and within the context of her research.

While Wen-Chin does frame her stories within anthropological theory, she allows her subjects to speak for themselves, and their stories unfold almost naturally as she records and interprets them for us.  We meet KMT soldiers, mule caravanners, jade traders, merchants, students, laborers, and learn about the intricate family and ethnic ties that bind them all together despite their movements from one country to another.

These are stories from a world that is unfamiliar and fascinating, and sometimes poignant.  A question that often arises is where is home?  For these people moving between countries, cultures, identities and roles, it often seems that they do not have a home base.  It is also enlightening to understand how an anthropologist works, and how she experiences some of the situations she gets into on a professional and personal level.

For me the highlight of the book was the chapter about Ae Maew, a young woman who attempts to get out of Burma and better her life through education in Taiwan.  The difficulties and frictions she faces, as well as the author's personal involvement are what made this chapter stand out.  The final paragraphs are very moving and it feels like one is reading a novel, not an anthropology text.  This particular narrative was so vivid that it was easy to imagine Ae Maew's story translating to social-realistic fiction or even cinema.  What an accomplishment to weave this kind of artistry into an academic book!  Perhaps Wen-Chin will one day write a novel based on her careful observations of this part of Asia, its people, and their compelling stories.  Until then, this publication enables us to discover what she has learned thus far.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (1969)

I was inspired to read this novel when I heard BBC Radio 4 was going to be broadcasting a radio drama adaptation of it this spring, so I figured it must be a good book, even though I had never heard of it.  I quickly checked to see if my library had a copy, and they did.

This book is part of the "Hainish cycle" written by Le Guin, a series of loosely connected science fiction novels that can be read alone, and which detail a distant future in which humans from various planets attempt to set up an interstellar confederacy.

In "The Left Hand of Darkness", we follow an envoy sent by this confederacy to the planet Gethen (or Winter, a planet where it is bitterly cold and snows most of the year) whose mission is to peacefully convince the leaders of the planet to join the confederacy, for purposes of trade and communication.  At the beginning of the novel, the envoy, Genly Ai, has been on Gethen for some time, and has had time to become acquainted with the way of life in one of the planet's countries, Karhide.  He has struck up an uneasy alliance with the King's prime minister, Estraven, and is hoping for an audience with the King.  Unexpectedly, the prime minister is sacked and exiled, and Genly is refused by the king, leaving him feeling betrayed and angry with Estraven.

Estraven flees Karhide to neighboring and rival country Orgoreyn, where he can hide, while Genly leaves the capital of Karhide and goes further afield to see more of the outlying areas of the country and learn more about the Foretellers, a group of people who can intuit the future.  From there he decides he will try his luck in convincing the leaders of Orgoreyn to join the interstellar confederacy, since he has not been successful in Karhide.  In Orgoreyn he is received enthusiastically by the leaders but behind his back he is sabotaged, and when he does not heed the subtle warnings given to him by Estraven, he finds himself arrested and sent to a brutal labor camp.

Slowly perishing from the harsh conditions in the camp, Genly is rescued just in time by Estraven, who decides they must undertake an 800 mile trek across a glacier to get Genly back over the border into Karhide. Estraven believes there is a chance, given the political situation, that the king can now be persuaded to join the confederacy.  During this long, dangerous and frigid trek, Genly and Estraven form a deep bond of friendship, despite their previous misunderstandings and inability to accept their differences, including their different modes of communication and sexuality.

One of the major threads of the book is the Gethenians' androgynous sexuality and how this impacts society and relationships between individuals.  Genly, as an outsider looking in, finds it fascinating but very confusing, and until he has a better grasp of it, it effects his relationship with Estraven and others.  Another major theme is the idea of culture shock and how one navigates being placed into a completely alien culture; and how one's perspective towards one's home culture changes drastically but at the same time without awareness - not until, that is, one is confronted with that home culture once again.  This is something I can definitely relate to.

This was a fascinating book, not only because of the highly original characters, Le Guin's dignified vintage prose, but also in the way the chapters alternated between Genly's dispatches to his superiors, Estraven's diary entries, and old Gethenian folk tales and legends, which enables the reader to really form a full and vivid picture of Le Guin's imagined world.  Excellent read!

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Swimmer by Roma Tearne (2010)

A random library find by an author I had never heard of before.  Roma Tearne is originally from Sri Lanka, but fled the country when she was a child and now lives in the UK.  She has published five novels, and "The Swimmer", her fourth, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

The originality of this novel took me by surprise.  The story starts with Ria, a middle-aged single poet who lives a secluded life in an old house she inherited from her uncle.  One night she sees someone swimming in the river at the bottom of her garden, and she begins to suspect that the swimmer is also sneaking into her house, stealing food.  She discovers that he is a young illegal refugee from Sri Lanka, Ben, and they strike up a tentative friendship that soon progresses into an unlikely romance.

A tragic turn in the story shifts the book's focus from Ria to another character, Anula, Ben's mother, who must come to England, and is confronted with being in a completely foreign environment and how this deeply affects her, and her life when she finally returns to Sri Lanka.

Finally, the third part of the book is told from the perspective of Lydia, Ria's daughter, through whom we learn of more tragedy that played out in these characters' lives.  Much of this novel is dark and very heavy, especially given the author's exploration of what it means to be an illegal immigrant in the UK, what is was like to live in Sri Lanka as a Tamil,  and extremist political hatred that are secondary themes of the book.  However, the ending leaves a small opening for a bit of hope, which is gripping after all the hard times Tearne put her characters through.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (1952)

I had only ever heard of Patricia Highsmith in regards to the Ripley novels and "Strangers on a Train" but had never actually read any of these books.  "Strangers on a Train" was mentioned recently in a review I read of a current bestselling thriller ("The Girl on the Train"), and intrigued, I went looking for it in our library's English book section.  Apparently, they do not have a copy of "Strangers" but I did stumble upon a copy of "The Price of Salt", which, going by the blurb on the back cover, sounded fascinating:

Patricia Highsmith’s story of sexual obsession may be one of the most important, but still largely unrecognized, novels of the twentieth century. First published in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan and touted as “the novel of a love society forbids,” the book soon became a lesbian cult classic. Yet it was always relegated to a mystery subgenre and never before given the literary recognition that it is now receiving. Based on a true story plucked from Highsmith’s own life,The Price of Salt tells the riveting story of Therese Belivet, a stage designer trapped in a department store day job, whose routine is forever shattered by the appearance of Carol Aird, a customer who comes in to buy her daughter a Christmas toy. Therese begins to stalk the alluring suburban housewife, who is trapped in a marriage as stultifying as Therese’s job. They fall in love and set out across the United States, pursued by a private investigator who eventually blackmails Carol into a choice between her daughter and her lover.
I was curious about how a novel written in 1952 would handle a topic that was such a taboo at that time, and I fully expected that the story would feel dated and somewhat awkward, given the time that has passed since it was written.  However, the only things that dated the story were the actual details that placed it in the 1950's: the use of telephones (through an operator) and telegrams, the prices of things and amounts of money spent ($20 for a speeding ticket; $1 a day for a room in a boarding house), and the attitude of some of the characters (Carol's husband and Therese's boyfriend) towards a romantic relationship between two women as something "sordid and pathological".

But the story of the relationship itself did not feel dated at all.  If you took away all the 1950's details and gave Carol and Therese cell phones, and the private investigator a webcam instead of a dictaphone, this story could easily be transposed to our times.  It is a story of a woman trying to get out of an unhappy marriage who falls in love with a younger woman who worships her.  At the beginning of the novel and through the road trip, I did not warm to either Carol or Therese as characters.  Carol was domineering and capricious, while Therese seemed much too passive.  However, there is a huge turning point in the novel, where Therese ends up spending a week or so on her own in Sioux Falls, and we see her come out of her shell, meet other people and spend time apparently thinking about her situation and her relationship with Carol.  This time alone seems to strengthen her to the extent that she is much more mature and able to make a real conscious choice once she is back in New York City at the end of the book.

So the fact that the story is over 60 years old is not a problem; in fact, I loved the period details.  I also loved the fact that Therese and Carol traveled through South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado; places I visited on a big road trip a few years back.  I could so imagine them in a nearly empty restaurant in a lodge in a pine forest somewhere in the Black Hills.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult (2013)

I read this for a new book club being set up by a friend of a friend in Brussels.  The first meeting is tonight and I am looking forward to it.  The first selection was this recent novel by Jodi Picoult.

I've read many of Picoult's books and generally enjoyed them.  She is a talented writer who knows how to put together a compelling story usually involving a moral dilemma, with believable and well detailed characters, and a plot that moves along quickly.  However, after a while, the books seemed to be all a bit similar to me, and I tired of them.  Fortunately, The Storyteller is a big departure from Picoult's usual novel formula, so that in itself was interesting to me.

This book is actually five stories or viewpoints woven into one novel and at times it felt like the stories each deserved a full novel by themselves rather than being intertwined into this one book.  There was a lot of information spilled on the reader at the beginning of the novel and at times, this felt overwhelming.

The five different stories/viewpoints that are intertwined in the book are:

  • Sage Singer, a young woman who is a baker, with a tragic past she is struggling to come to terms with, meets an older German man, Josef Weber, in a grief counseling group
  • a fairy tale like story about Polish vampires
  • Minka, Sage's grandmother, and her experiences in the ghetto and concentration camps
  • Reiner, an Nazi SS officer
  • Leo, the Office of Human Rights and Special Prosecutions lawyer, whose job is tracking down former Nazis and bringing them to trial
The different stories are given extra emphasis by different typesetting, which is necessary to help the reader keep everything straight.

Once you get past the initial bombardment of information in the beginning of the book, the plot gets moving and Picoult succeeds in putting together a moving story about the holocaust, as well as a thriller about the hunt for an ex Nazi, combined with a bit of moral examination of the possibility of forgiveness.  Does it sound like there was a lot to take in in this book?  There was.  In my opinion, it tried to do too many things at once, and left a lot of potentially interesting territory unexplored, not to mention many side characters that seemed neglected (Sage's sisters) or even worse, just window dressing, like the bakery assistant who spoke in haikus (why did we need to know this? This is never made clear.)  So, another best seller for Jodi Picoult, but not one of her best, which is a shame, because the subject matter deserved more.