The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, or Mission to Paris by Alan Furst. It's a thriller set in some unnamed Eastern European city (possibly in Ukraine) after World War II so you can see why that was a reasonable wish. But alas it has neither the sprawling reach of TIB nor the sympathetic characters of MtP. It's just a dark story of a troubled man in a miserable city during an unpleasant time in history. I read about two thirds of it and just...gave up. Which isn't to say it didn't have some redeeming value: Steinhauer writes lovely prose, and maybe in another mood the gallows humor might have appealed to me. Sometimes it isn't the book, it's the reader, though in this case I think it was a bit of both.
(Book 32, 2013)
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Harrison centers the action around the mystic Rasputin' eldest daughter Masha and sticks mostly with the facts that are known about her life. However, she has imagined a chapter of Masha’s life where Masha and her younger sister live for a while with the Tsar’s family when they are imprisoned in the Alexander Palace, after the death of Rasputin. Harrison’s portrait of the family’s isolation is poignant, moving, and often surprisingly funny. Masha, her sister, and the Tsar’s five children are portrayed as a bunch of bored teenagers, albeit surrounded by hostile armed guards at all times. After Masha is released, she continues to correspond secretly with the Tsarevich Alexei; Harrison uses this device as a way to follow the family up through their deaths in 1918. I also liked how Harrison portrays Rasputin. She alludes to the worst parts of his reputation (his alleged sexual exploits and purported influence on politics) but doesn’t over-emphasize them. He emerges more as an obsessive man than an evil one. I just read that the TV network FX is developing a limited series about Rasputin. I wonder if they will be as judicious as Harrison – probably not.
(Book 31, 2013)
Thursday, October 24, 2013
|Notice the queens are color coded (okay, there is no yellow queen)|
I had not read the Philippa Gregory books on which the series was based because I usually think her books are dull and repetitive, but in this case I was intrigued by her approach to this material. She wrote four different books from the points of view of four different women who all lived mostly concurrently; these books relate the same (or interconnected) events from each of the women's (often conflicting) perspectives. The BBC took all four books and combined them into one narrative, but I was curious about how Gregory did it so I read two of the four books. The White Queen is about Elizabeth Rivers, wife of Edward IV, and The Red Queen is about Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor (Henry VII; and she never was a queen so what’s with that title?). The other two books are The Lady of the Rivers (about Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta Rivers) and The Kingmaker’s Daughter (about Anne Neville, wife of Richard III, shown above in yellow). I doubt I will have the stamina to read either of these. Of the two I read, The Red Queen was a lot more interesting. Margaret Beaufort’s shocking confidence in her own ability to converse with God, and her singled-minded obsession with getting her son onto the throne made her a much more interesting character than Elizabeth Rivers, whose primary attributes seemed to be her looks and her fertility. Gregory has entitled her series The Cousins War, and a fifth and final volume is coming out soon. Called The White Princess, it's the story of Elizabeth of York, daughter of Elizabeth Rivers and wife to Henry VII. While I probably won't read that either, I like the fact that Gregory has taken on this era and story, which is usually overlooked in favor of the Tudors.
I read both books simultaneously as I watched the show, so I would watch an episode, then read up to that point in both the books, then watch another episode, etc. The show tracked the books pretty closely and the chapters are helpfully titled. I enjoyed myself, though my reading experience is inextricably linked to the viewing experience, so it's hard to comment only on the books. I would venture to say that, without the added fun of the good looking actors, and great costumes and locations, the books would be bland. But you should try it my way: the DVDs are available in the UK now and will be soon in the US, and the books are in the library.
|Tom Hiddleston as Hal. Sigh.|
(Books 29 and 30, 2013)
Thursday, October 17, 2013
If you are still interested, here is a shorter version of what I wrote for Isthmus:
My Life as a Silent Movie opens with a tragedy: a car accident kills a father and child instantly, leaving Emma, the wife and mother, to grieve alone. Emma has no siblings and her own parents are recently deceased, her mother by suicide. When her only relative, an elderly aunt, reveals the long held family secret that Emma was adopted, it becomes too much for her to bear. Emma’s shock and sorrow lead her to a breakdown of sorts and she sets off on an ill-conceived quest to find her roots. That quest takes her to Paris, where, using the scant evidence in her possession, she hopes to find her birth mother and perhaps put to rest some of her pain and isolation.
Emma embarks upon her quest with little other than an address scribbled on the back of a 40-year-old photo. Yet unlike in real life, where people search for years to find their birth families, Emma finds her brother within a day! And he recognizes her, even though he hasn’t seen her since he was three. Really? From there, coincidences pile atop one another, each less believable than the one preceding it. But then I realized that the book’s title says it all. Remember what it’s like to watch a silent move? The exaggerated acting, the quick transitions, the over-the-top plot machinations? Kercheval has translated the features of a silent film to her novel, incorporating not only the cinematic melodrama and the surprise revelations but the pacing as well. It works perfectly, if you know what you are looking at. My advice is to picture Emma in black and white and listen for the theater organ and it will all make sense.
(Book 28, 2013)
Friday, October 11, 2013
Mission to Paris is Furst’s most recent book, published in 2012, and as it turns out, it’s as good a place as any to dive in to his work. And did I like it? Yes! It’s about an actor who goes to Paris to make a film in the late 1930’s and gets caught up in some nasty business with the Germans and their French sympathizers. Imagine Cary Grant as the actor—no one contemporary will do. There’s danger, but not too much, very little blood, some intrigue, but nothing that’s too difficult to keep track of. Furst’s writing is smooth and sophisticated, understated and confident. Just like Cary Grant.
I could complain a little about Furst’s proclivity for the male gaze (lots of luscious descriptions of beautiful women’s bodies, sex scenes always written from the man’s point of view). In an ideal world an author this good would recognize that not all of his readers are straight men. Especially since he has no trouble giving these delicious women lots of interesting things to do. It’s almost like he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it, since he’s obviously making a good-faith effort to create women characters who have brains and agency. When I complained about this to a long-time Furst fan, she said, philosophically, “oh, just roll your eyes and keep reading.” That’s a pretty good advice.
(Book 27, 2013)
Wednesday, October 02, 2013
Because their father is a Shakespeare scholar, this book is peppered with literary allusions, all helpfully printed in italics, in case you can’t tell. And of course there is the book’s title, and the names of the sisters, who are Rosalind, Bianca, and worst of all, Cordelia. The sisters neatly embody various literary stereotypes: the good daughter (Rosalind), the party girl (Bianca), and the artist (Cordelia). Despite these handicaps I enjoyed reading the book, and finished it, despite several detours to read other, more compelling choices.
Here are a few random observations:
- Brown at times writes in first person plural, as if the sisters are all speaking as one. Hence they talk about “our mother” and things “we did” as children. It doesn’t sound like it would work but it does. Brown uses the trick judiciously and it highlights the sisters’ closeness and sense of shared history and destiny. They speak almost as a Greek chorus at times, especially when they comment on their parents’ relationship.
- The sisters and their parents spend a lot of time reading. I like books where the characters read. Of course, reading about other people reading doesn’t make for very interesting reading in itself, so there’s that. But it did make me like the characters. Their reading felt very natural to me and reminded me of my own house, where books are everywhere and everyone just reads whatever is close to hand.
- This is a nice sweet story where everything works out okay in the end. It’s a good book for a bad day, or if you’ve recently witnessed too many explosions or car chases.
Thursday, September 26, 2013
The aspect of this book that intrigued me most was Moyes's sensitive handling of the issue of wartime collaboration. Sophie's relationship with the Kommandant is complicated, in part because he is not entirely evil. Moyes expertly describes the connections that can be forged in difficult circumstances, sometimes even against our will. I have read the stories of what happened to female collaborators in France after World War II and I am horrified to think that most of them probably had very little choice about their actions. Like Sophie, they were most likely cornered, coerced by offers of food or shelter, and desperate to protect their families.
But wait, this is book is not sad! I just happened to latch on to this piece as a new way of thinking about an issue I took for granted. On a lighter note, I had the pleasure of meeting Jojo Moyes on Saturday evening when she read from this book at an event sponsored by Madison's new Central Library, in conjunction with the Wisconsin Book Festival. She was a wonderful speaker--warm, funny, and charming. Despite the fact that Madison was her last stop on a multiweek tour she was unflagging in her enthusiasm for the library and for the joy of reading. Here we are, enjoying the evening (Moyes on the left, me at right).
(Book 25, 2013)