July 09, 2014

Brazilian Bildungsroman

Crow Blue, by Adriana Lisboa, (Bloomsbury USA), 240 pages

I love reading literature in translation. I’m no expert on languages, but it’s interesting to think about how particular sentences might have been phrased in the original or how well the translator has done at finding a style in the new language that reflects the author’s style in the original. My most recent novel-in-translation read is Adriana Lisboa’s Crow Blue, translated by Alison Entrekin. Although Lisboa now lives in the U.S., she is Brazilian by birth and writes in Portuguese.

At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, I want to say that Crow Blue reads like a novel in translation in the very best sense of that term. The voice is engaging and consistent and unlike anything I’ve read from U.S. authors. Lisboa has written the kind of book one can “chew” on, and Entrekin has rendered it luminous, sometimes dream-like prose.

The novel’s plot can be outlined quickly, Evangelina (Vanja), born in the U.S. to a mother with dual citizenship, has been raised in her mother’s native Brazil. When Vanja is twelve, her mother dies, and Vanja determines to track down her birth father, who she knows nothing about. For a first step on her journey, he moves to Colorado to live with her step-father, the man actually listed as her father on her birth certificate. With his help and with the companionship of a young Salvadoran immigrant neighbor, she begins her search.

The book is written in first person, with Vanja, now twenty-two, narrating her search. Her voice is precocious, but not in the sassy, impatient sense that the word might suggest. Her precociousness is quiet and reflective. She sees her own world more richly than one would expect from a child of her age, and her precocity extends to her understanding of others: “Fernando [her step-father] came across as being exactly what he appeared to be. Which could mean two things: that he was exactly what he appeared to be. Or that he was a talented liar, the worst kind—the sort that lie to themselves, with so much conviction and effort that they end up believing it, and when they tell other people their lies they think they are actually telling the truth.”

Not long after that, she muses, “the future was (and is, and will always be) a mutating thing, the fruit of successive forks in the road, and I was already beginning to suspect that making plans was an embarrassingly useless habit.”

Vanja interweaves the tale of her search with memories of her mother and with stories recounted by Fernando, now a guard at the Denver Public Library, but originally a Brazilian guerrilla trained in China, and later a London bartender. The pace of the novel reminds one of a children’s game—three steps forward and two steps back—repeating herself occasionally as she shifts ground.

Crow Blue is coming-of-age novel, but one that expands that tradition, with an inner journey as thoroughly articulated as the outward one. For anyone with a reflective bent, this book will prove a deeply satisfying read.

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July 08, 2014

In which a Style Like Jane Austen’s Is Attempted, Things Happen Gradually, and Some Readers Are Pleased While Others Are Not

The Awakening of Miss Prim: A Novel, by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, (Simon and Schuster), 272 pages

When I requested an electronic ARC for Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera’s The Awakening of Miss Prim, I knew I was taking a chance. This is a “quaint” novel, one that idealizes a vague past, when things purportedly were better for everyone. Education wasn’t watered down by modern educational theory, people spoke their minds clearly and without rancor, and genuine debate thrived. People also fell in love gradually, with minds, then hearts, and physical love was left for much later.

Sometimes I find such conceits charming, at other times they seem cloying. If you visit the Goodreads page for this book, you’ll see that the responses to it are very mixed, suggesting that The Awakening of Miss Prim is a book you’ll need to look at for yourself—not one that you can buy or skip based on reviews.

To sum this book up succinctly, Miss Prim decides on a whim to apply for a rather unusual private librarian’s position: the applicant should be good with children and dogs and have no qualifications whatsoever. Miss Prim actually has quite a few qualifications, including multiple advanced degrees, but she nonetheless manages to land the position and moves to the village where her employer lives. This is a village composed of individuals who feel alienated by modern life and who are attempting to create a gentler, more intelligent world by looking to the past. Miss Prim arrives here, is first nonplussed, then increasingly attracted by life in the village.

That’s pretty much it. The prose has a sparkle to it, but the reader’s response will be shaped primarily by her patience with gradual unfoldings of minor events. The author is attempting a modern-day sort of Pride and Prejudice, with mixed results—mixed not because they’re uneven, but because different readers respond to the narrative in such different ways.

I didn’t love this book, but this doesn’t mean you’ll feel the same. The next time you’re at your local independent bookstore, pick up a copy, read a few pages. You’ll quickly be able to decide for yourself whether you’ll be delighted or disinterested.

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July 06, 2014

(Self) Discovery in Colonial Egypt

The Sacred River: A Novel, by Wendy Wallace, (Scribner), 304 pages

I requested an electronic ARC of Wendy Wallace’s The Sacred River because the story seemed so suited to my interests. The book opens in London, but is set primarily in British-controlled Egypt during the early 20th Century—a time of political unrest and archaeological discovery. What I hadn’t realized was that Wendy Wallace is also the author of one of my favorite books from 2012, The Painted Bridge, and I found The Sacred River every bit as enjoyable as that earlier work.

What Wallace writes is almost romance. Almost. But with more intellectual richness and with resolutions that are more complicated than the usual heterosexual coupling such books end with. Yes, in each book a man and a woman emerge as a couple, but that coupling isn’t the purpose that drives them. Instead, they come together because of shared interests or intellectual pursuits—and the women have as much substance in this area as the men do.

The Sacred River focuses on three women: a mother, Louisa; her sister-in-law, Yael; and Louisa’s daughter, Harriet. Harriet, now in her early twenties, is consumptive. She’s spent her years as an invalid studying texts on ancient Egypt, particularly hieroglyphs, and convinces her doctor to tell her parents that travel to Egypt is essential for her health. So Louisa and Harriet, accompanied by the spinster, Yael, set sail.

As it turns out, Egypt is good for Harriet’s health, easing her breathing and also giving her life a sense of purpose that it’s lacked before. Harriet is able to participate in archaeological work, sketching paintings and glyphs in a recently discovered tomb. Yael also finds a new sense of purpose in Egypt, one suited to her Christian beliefs and her inherent feminism. Louisa, meanwhile, is confronted with a past that, as a cover copy-writer might put it, she’d “prefer to keep buried.” The paths the women take are very different, giving the book a satisfying breadth of scope.

For the most part, the Egypt readers see is the Egypt of British colonialism. Egyptians themselves are background figures, helpful servants or vaguely menacing strangers. But by the book’s end, as political resistance to British rule increases, readers are given a sense of the anti-colonial struggle that will shake the country in years to come.

The Sacred River is one of those wonderful reads combining lyricism, self-realization, and historical reality in a combination that delights throughout. If you have time for a summer read, I can’t imagine a better recommendation than The Sacred River. This book will broaden your horizons as the heroines work to broaden their own.

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July 02, 2014

The Never-Ending End Times

As High as the Horses’ Bridles: A Novel, by Scott Cheshire, (Macmillan, Henry Holt and Co.), 318 pages

I can’t say that I enjoyed reading Scott Cheshire’s High as the Horses’ Bridles, but I was certainly engaged by it. This is the sort of book one reads not for the narrative arc or for the specific characters that inhabit it, but in order to explore the ideas underlying it.

We meet the book’s narrator in 1980 at age twelve when he’s about to testify before a group of evangelicals some four thousand strong. Star Wars action figure in his pocket, he comes on stage and surprises himself by announcing that the apocalypse will come in the year 2000.

The novel then fast-forwards. Our narrator is now thirty-seven, he’s long since shed any belief in the apocalypse or even God, but his elderly, widowed father remains obsessed with the end times. Josiah has been living in California for years, but he’s returned home to New York at the urging of his ex-wife, who’s deeply concerned about Gill’s, her former father-in-law’s, health—both physical and mental.

The horses’ bridles of the title come from the book of Revelation. An evangelical preacher declares: “that Last Day will be like none since the Flood. And God’s army will come riding forth on horses, and the sinners’ blood will run in the streets, thick and deep, high as the horses’ bridles.”

Josiah finds himself haunted by this image, asking “Whose blood?… I’d recited this scripture how many times without thinking?… My good mother would one day slip and swim through whose wet blood?… My mother would wade through a river of whose dead blood exactly?”

It’s the contrasts like these that make High as the Horses’ Bridles so interesting. Josiah questions his faith—but even when that faith is gone he never mocks it. For Josiah, apocalyptic faith is one reasonable way of being in the world. It’s just that he’s left it long ago and his father lives there still.

This isn’t a book to rush through. It needs to be read slowly and carefully, with plenty of time for reflection between periods of reading. Most readers won’t find a character with whom to identify, but they will have the opportunity of picking up and trying on what might seem like foreign identities, living within them until their own logic becomes clear.

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July 01, 2014

Detecting Chaos

The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases, by Deborah Halber, (Simon & Schuster), 304 pages

Deborah Halber’s The Skeleton Crew is another book that falls into the I-wanted-to-like-it-more-than-I-did category. Like a great many readers, I’ve been looking for and devouring non-fiction about forensic detection—particularly forensic anthropology—for at least the past ten years. As a result, I was delighted to receive a digital ARC for review. The Skeleton Crew has a great premise: explore the work of amateurs attempting find identities for unidentified remains.

Interesting possibilities, yes?

Unfortunately, these possibilities are never realized. Instead, we get a rambling, digressive depiction of a few cases and individuals, but never a book with a clear purpose. Halber attempts to hold the book together by returning periodically to a single case, but all this does is spread out that particular narrative in a way that confuses and frustrates readers.

The prose itself is turgid, thick with descriptive detail that doesn’t always make sense. Three examples:

Livingston, Tennessee, is plopped like the yolk of a sunny-side-up egg in a valley roughly midway between Nashville,home of country music, and Knoxville, birthplace of Mountain Dew and the Dempster-Dumpster.

In the yearbook’s head-and-shoulder portraits, the girls’ big hair fell in bangs curling like spiders’ legs over their foreheads.

The day I met him, his dark suit, crisp white shirt with a monogrammed cuff, and sharp tie were set off by mother-of-pearl cufflinks in rich blues and greens—almost as reflective as his bald head—that glinted as he offered me his hand.

What one wants from a book like this is a sense of the puzzle of identifying remains and how it’s solved—the thinking and step-by-step actions of individuals who have succeeded in this work. That material is buried in The Skeleton Crew here and there, but like the bodies these amateurs work with, it’s hard to identify.

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June 29, 2014

Barcelona Gumshoe

The Summer of Dead Toys: A Thriller, by Antonio Hill, (Random House, Broadway Books), 368 Pages

Barcelona makes a great setting for a mystery novel, and Antonio Hill puts the city to good use in The Summer of Dead Toys. This isn’t the murky, mysterious Barcelona that some readers may know through the work of Carlos Ruiz Zafón; this is a sweltering, modern-day Barcelona, gasping its way through a heat wave.

Inspector Héctor Salgado, the central character of this novel, is just the sort of man one expects to find in such a  book: abused by a violent father as a boy, now divorced, communicating with his son only occasionally, not always able to keep his own rage in check. This rage is a pressing issue at the start of the novel. Salgado is returning from a suspension, currently on probation because he attacked a member of a human trafficking ring. His first upon his return looks straightforward—a probable accidental death. Of course, nothing in the world of thrillers is ever straightforward…

Hill’s prose (as translated from the Spanish by Laura McGloughlin) is perfectly suited to his tale. The pacing is brisk, the sentences unadorned. One enters the current of the novel and is pulled along at increasing speed, making this a book you’ll be tempted to read in a single sitting. If thrillers are your sort of read, you can’t go wrong with The Summer of Dead Toys. And you’ll probably find yourself, as I am, hoping we haven’t seen the last of Inspector Salgado.

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June 27, 2014

Grade-School Gothic

The Doll Graveyard: A Hauntings Novel, by Lois Ruby (Scholastic), 256 pages

Lois Ruby’s The Doll Graveyard is the perfect gift for the eight- to twelve-year-old fan of all things creepy in your life. Shelby thinks her life can’t get any worse: her parents have divorced, she’s moving two hundred miles to a new home in a small town, and that home is a weird old mansion left to Shelby’s mother by a dying aunt.

That’s before she and her younger brother Brian find the doll graveyard in the back yard. And the creepy doll house in the attic. And the doll hidden in the wall behind Shelby’s dresser. And we haven’t even gotten to the point where Shelby starts hearing voices…

If you know any grade-schoolers who are into all things ghoulish, you’ll be able to bring them reading joy—and terror—with this atmospheric read.

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June 26, 2014

As Vast as the Desert Itself

The Visitors: A Novel, by Sally Beauman, (HarpersCollins), 544 pages

The adjective sprawling exists just so that it can be applied to novels like Sally Beauman’s The Visitors. This novel moves back and forth across continents, decades, and communities.

This novel has two centers: an event, the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, and a character, Lucy Payne, a young girl in Egypt at the time of that discovery, recovering from typhoid. Lucy and her mother were both infected with the disease, and only Lucy survived. While Lucy travels with a family friend, her father, a classicist with no patience for anything other than academic brilliance, remains in Cambridge, living as he always has in his college rooms rather than in the family home.

In a Cairo ballet class, Lucy makes friends with two other girls: Lady Rose, whose unpredictable, beautiful mother sparkles at the center of the wealthy British set, and Frances Winlock (one of the historical characters fitted into this novel), the daughter of Herbert Winlock, field director for the New York Met’s excavations near Luxor. The girls are both sophisticated and naive watching the comings and goings—both archaeological and social—among the adults surrounding them.

One of the novel’s central questions is when Howard Carter and his sponsor Lord Carnarvon first entered the pharaoh’s tomb. The historical record is now clear on that question: they entered the tomb earlier than either of them admitted, surveying their find, then resealing the tomb for its official opening. The historical record also shows that both of them helped themselves to various small objects during the course of the excavation—in violation of their agreement with the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Lucy and Francis track Carter and Carnarvon’s movements, speculating about their motivations.

Because this is a sprawling book, a great deal more happens. We follow Lucy home to Cambridge where a recent graduate student, Nicola Dunsire, has levered her way into the family home, serving as governess and tutor to Lucy and amanuensis to Lucy’s father, Dr. Robert Foxe-Payne. Within a year, Nicola is Lucy’s stepmother. Lucy begins to surreptitiously sell her deceased mother’s jewelry in hopes of raising enough money to return to Egypt. Lucy summers yearly with Lady Rose and her young brother, Peter, on an estate alongside that of Lord Carnarvon. There are teas, there are puppies, there are contrasts of wealth and lifestyle.

This novel isn’t light reading; its large cast and historical backdrop require careful attention. The reader also has to be patient, waiting for abandoned threads of the story to be picked up again, for seemingly unrelated incidents to be brought together. Lucy remains a distant character throughout. Though she narrates the novel, the reader is always conscious of a deliberate distance she creates between herself and others, her determination to hold back as much of her own story as she can.

There is a great deal to chew on in this novel—both actual history and the relationships Beauman depicts among the characters. While that material occasionally rings false, it is engrossing overall, providing a satisfying mix of rewards for the reader.

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June 24, 2014

Taking Flight

The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd, (Viking), 384 pages

Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings was released released at the start of the year, but I’ve just finished reading it. This is the first of Kidd’s novels I’ve read, and I’m impressed. I’m sure one of the reasons I enjoyed this novel so much was that it uses one of my favorite devices: paired narrators with very different voices and different understandings of the same events.

In this instance, the narrators are Sarah Grimké and Hetty Handful Grimké. Sarah Grimké’s name may be familiar—she and her sister Angelina were major figures in both the abolitionist movement and the struggle for women’s rights that arose from that movement. The second narrator is a slave held by Grimké’s family, who is given to Sarah Grimké as a gift on her eleventh birthday. This second narrator is an invention of Kidd’s, though Grimké was given a slave as an eleventh birthday present—this slave died of an unspecified disease less than a year later.

Kidd first decided she wanted to write a novel about Sarah and Angelina Grimké and explains that once she’d made this choice “I felt compelled to also create the story of an enslaved character, giving her a life and a voice that could be entwined with Sarah’s. I felt that I couldn’t write the novel otherwise, that both of their worlds would have to be represented.” Handful, in fact, has both the first and the last word. This novel is very much her own story, and she is much more than a mirror reflecting an image of Grimké for the reader.

Each woman is transformed by the end of the novel. Grimké has found the courage to become a public figure, and Handful plans a successful escape for herself and her half-sister. Midway through the book, Handful sums up the different challenges they face: “[Sarah] was trapped same as me, but she was trapped by her mind, by the minds of the people around her, not by the law…. I tried to tell her that. I said, ‘My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you it’s the other way round.’” That statement may seem more suited to the late Twentieth Century than the mid-Nineteenth Century, but it sums up the novel’s two narrative arcs succinctly.

For the most part, however, both women seem grounded in their own time in a way that makes reflecting on their lives and choices from our moment in history uncomfortable and inappropriate. Neither woman is—and I’m deeply grateful for this—completely likeable. Kidd has worked hard to avoid hagiography, and to a large extent she succeeds.

This is a book I’ll be buying for presents: for younger relatives who are having to make their own choices about the direction of their adult lives and for friends who actively examine their own lives and who will appreciate examining these lives as well. The copy of The Invention of Wings that I read was provided as a free ebook in exchange for a review. I’ll soon be buying a print copy for myself—one more gift, and one that the recipient (me) is sure to enjoy.

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June 22, 2014

Dancing Feet

Mambo in Chinatown, by Jean Kwok, (Penguin), 384 pages

Jean Kwok’s Mambo in Chinatown is a fairytale of a book set in present-day New York and moving between a high-end ballroom dance studio and working class life in Chinatown. Charlie, the oldest of two daughters is our princess in disguise: hard working, lovingly dedicated to those around her, and consistently underestimated by  almost everyone.

While the novel has its share of romance (in this world, a princess needs a prince), it’s Charlie who saves herself, not some heroic male sweeping in to rescue her. Tired of working as a dishwasher in the restaurant where her father makes noodles, Charlie takes a job as receptionist at the previously mentioned dance studio, Mildly dyslexic, she makes a mess of things, mixing up instructional schedules, garbling phone messages.

But just when Charlie’s about to lose her job for incompetence, someone notices how well she can point her toes and (forgive the change of analogy) our ugly duckling begins to transform into a swan—a swan with a previously unknown gift for teaching ballroom dance.

Parts of the story are predictable, but Charlie is such a likeable character that the reader forgives this; it’s fun to ride along on her journey. What’s best about this novel is the way it illuminates cultural conflicts within New York’s Chinese-American community.  Western medicine is viewed skeptically, but Eastern medicine isn’t above suspicion. Fathers expect their daughters to be obedient, while these daughters are doing all they can to discover a world beyond that of their family.

You’ll figure out how this book will end well before you finish it, but that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy reading it. Watching Charlie change her own world (and find her prince) is a genuine pleasure.

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