THE BELIEVERS by Zoë Heller

Audrey, a British chick, meets  American lawyer Joel Litvinoff at a party in London, and for a date, Audrey takes him to meet her Polish immigrant parents in their tiny, airless, awful apartment in some distant village.  When they arrive back in London, she invites him to bed, and after love-making, he proposes and she accepts, and off they go to America, NYC.

He becomes famous for his Socialism, defense of the poor and downtrodden, his activism in human and civil rights, and Audrey is right there at his side.

So far, so good, except that she, having adopted an attitude of British coolness and distance in order to distinguish herself from his hoard of fans and camp followers, finds that after a time, her persona facade has become who she is. And who she is is awful.  She is distant from her two daughters, and indifferent housekeeper and meal provider.

“Audrey had never evinced the slightest sentimentality about children.  Insofar as she had recognized them as independent category of personhood, she had tended to think of them as trainee humans.  Inadequate adults.”

She is a strong-mouthed pot smoker, and truly disdains her older daughter, a young woman who has struggled with her weight and self image all her life, becoming servile to her mother in an attempt to win her approval.  The younger is a rebel, spent four years in Cuba, and when we meet her, is working with an organization for disadvantaged teen girls, and is always on the outs with her mother.

After one case of Joel’s, who is called in to defend a mother who was involved in an armed bank robbery, the mother asks him to do something about her son, 7 years old (I think), waiting in her apartment for her return.  He and Audrey go there, and for some reason, Audrey falls in love with this kid.  They take him in as a foster,  and she cares so much more for him than for her own children.  So much so that she ignores, and enables his growing criminal behavior, as he becomes an addict.

The plot involves the older married sister trying to get pregnant with a man who admits he choose her to marry even though she was not particularly attractive  and obese because they shared the same ultra left political values.   It becomes clear that she never really loved him, but was grateful someone wanted to marry her, and he never really loved her.

The younger daughter, of this completely atheistic Jewish family, somehow becomes enamored of orthadox Jewish life, and begins exploring this lifestyle, which infuriates her mother.

The father, at age 72, has a massive stroke, and is in a coma for 8 or nine months, during which the older daughter meets someone who seems to have fallen in love with her for herself,  the younger daughter becomes deeper involved in Jewish orthodoxy,   the drug addict foster son attends a rehab for the nth time but this time it seems to take, and the wife discovers that all was not as it seem with the husband when a young woman comes forward to advise her of her long term affair with the husband which has produced a son, now four years old.

A book filled with characters for whom this jaded, cynical reader just really had no patience for, and situations for which one already can see the outcome, but which kept me turning pages anyway.  Kind of like a good gossip about which you have nothing to contribute and don’t know any of the gossipees, but are eager to hear more.

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NO GREAT MISCHIEF by Alistair MacLeod

This is the story of the substantial branch of the MacDonald clan that settled on Cape Breton Island off Nova Scotia  It is not history, or historical fiction exactly, although there are numerous references to the past events in Scotland, battles and heroes, none of which I had heard of because American education is so parochial.

The MacDonalds see everything in terms of their ancestry. For them, Glencoe and Culloden occupy the historic present rather than the past tense. Even their Canadian forebears cast long shadows. The narrator’s great-great-great-grandfather, Calum Ruadh or Calum the Red, left Scotland in 1779, but he is a constant presence in modern conversations.

The first person narrator, Alexander MacDonald, tells a page-turning story of his childhood from the vantage point of his current day life as a successful orthodontist.   He now visits weekly or every other week his alcoholic oldest brother in his rooming house in Toronto, and as the plot moves along, we learn just why the brother, Calum, 11 years older than he, is where he is.

Alexander has a twin sister, and when they are three years old, their parents and younger brother fall through the ice and drown, leaving the twins in the care of their paternal grandparents to raise.  Their three much older brothers move out to a derelict family house on the shore and make their own way  living in a primitive style and fishing.

When Alexander graduates high school and is ready to go to college to become a dentist, his brothers, back from mining in far parts of the globe, take jobs in the Canadian uranium mines, and after an accident to one of their clan, persuade Alexander to come with them for the summer.  So we have the story of life in the mines.  When a cousin from California joins them in the mines, they soon find he does not share the same clan values and identity, and begins to steal from the workers.  The oldest brother, Calum, defends him in a huge free-for-all brawl, in which he kills the leader of the French contingent of the miners.

It is all about loyalty, clan loyalty, family, and one’s place in it, and the take-away quote is “All of us are better when we’re loved.”

The book has a number of sometimes overdone symbols, but that’s OK.  Sometimes we Gentle Readers need to be hit over the head before we get it.  One of the recurrent themes is that of the moon, “the lantern of the poor.”   From  an old song,

Glory forever to thee so bright
Thou moon so white of this very night;
Thouself forever thou dost endure
As the glorious lantern of the poor.

A beautiful book that speaks to the heart.

 

 

THE CROW ROAD by Iain Banks

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”   So opens this likable 1993 tale of an extended family in Argyll,  Scotland.  When a novel opens like this, I’m IN!

In Scotland, there is apparently a saying “away the Crow Road”  It meant dying, being dead.  “Aye, he’s away the crow road,” meant “He’s dead.”  The crow is such a heavily laden symbol in many cultures, and often symbolizes death.  This book is all about death.  And sex.  And cars.

It was the day my grandmother exploded.  I sat in the crematorium listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.

There is also a local road named Crow Road, and it figures, if not prominently, at least conspicuously, in the story. It is narrated in the first person by young Prentice McHoan as he navigates his last year at college, trying to come to terms with his various preoccupations: death, drink, sex, God, illegal substances, and whatever happened to Uncle Rory (who disappeared a decade earlier).   Uncle Rory’s disappearance is a thread woven throughout the story, and as life unfolds, and events happen, it slowly becomes a murder mystery, with Prentice being the terribly inept detective.

It is filled with lovely, quirky characters, and situations that are funny, yet believable.  His father is struck by lightning while climbing a steeple in the local church,  his grandmother died from falling through the celestial windows of their home as she was cleaning them,  his aunt died while a passenger in a car her husband was driving too fast,  and there was one more.  I forget.  It was Four Funerals and a Wedding.   He receives a substantial bequest from one of those who was away the Crow Road, and says

… suddenly I was, if not quite within range of the mountains of Rich, certainly well into the foothills of Comfortable.

Lovely writing style, good storyline, enough unknowns to keep you interested, and some great quotes:

While dancing with Aunt Ilsa at a wedding:

Aunt Ilsa — even larger than I remembered her, and dressed in something which looked like a cross between a Persian rug and a multi-occupancy poncho – moved with the determined grace of an elephant, and a curious stiffness that made the experience a little like dancing with a garden shed.

At the funeral of his grandmother:

My Aunt Antonia — a ball of pink-rinse hair above the bulk of her black coat, like candy floss stuck upon a hearse.

The family lawyer:

Mr. Blawke was dressed somewhere in the high nines, sporting a dark grey double-breasted suit over a memorable purple waistcoat that took its inspiration from what looked like Mandelbrot but might more charitably have been Paisley.  A glittering gold fob watch the size of a small frying pan was anchored in the shallows of one waistcoat pocket by a bulk-carrier grade chain.

Mr. Blawke always reminded me of a heron;  I’m not sure why.  Something to do with a sense of rapacious stillness perhaps, and also the aura of one who knows that time is on his side.  I thought he had looked oddly comfortable int he presence of the undertakers.

All in all, a fine read.  One of those that when you are done reading, you say, ‘Gee, that was good.’

 

 

 

THE GADFLY by Ethel Lillian Voynich

Ethel Lillian Voynich was an Irish novelist and musician, born in 1864, and a supporter of several revolutionary causes. She was born in Cork, but grew up in England. Voynich was a significant figure, not only on the late Victorian literary scene, but also in Russian émigré circles. She is best known for her novel The Gadfly, which became hugely popular in her lifetime, especially in Russia.

Ethel Lilian Voynich was married to Habdank-Wojnicz, a revolutionary who had escaped from Siberia. In 1904 he anglicised his name to Voynich and became an antiquarian book dealer, giving his name eventually to the Voynich manuscript. Yeah, THAT Voynich.

Written in 1897, the story is about Arthur Burton, an English Catholic, who travels to Italy to study to be a priest. He discovers radical ideas, renounces Catholicism, is thrown into prison for a while, and after his release, learns that his beloved mentor, Father Montanelli, who evenutally becomes a Cardinal in the church, was actually his biological father.  His girlfriend believes false rumors about him, and tosses him over as he is returning home from prison.  In despair, he fakes his death and leaves Italy. While away he suffers great hardship, but returns with renewed revolutionary fervor. He becomes a journalist, expounding radical ideas in brilliant satirical tracts published under the pseudonym “the gadfly”.

The story examines the emotions Arthur experiences as a revolutionary, particularly drawing on the relationship between religious and revolutionary feelings. This is especially explicit at the climax of the book, where sacred descriptions intertwine with reflections on the Gadfly’s fate. Eventually Arthur is captured by the authorities and executed by a firing squad. Montanelli also dies, having lost his faith and his sanity.

The central theme of the book is the nature of a true revolutionary,and throughout we read the reflections on religion and rebellion.  The Gadfly was exceptionally popular in the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China and Iran exerting a large cultural influence.  It was made into a opera, and George Bernard Shaw wrote the theatrical version.   Dmitri Shostakovich wrote a suite for orchestra which he named The Gadfly.

It was certainly a page-turner, set in a time when the peninsula of Italy had finally been brought under one flag, but the land and the people were by no means unified. Decades of internal strife had left a legacy of violence, social chaos, and widespread poverty.  The Church was a major political player, and there were a number of political revolutionary groups fighting against the authorities in attempts to bring better conditions to the average citizen.

Oh, yeah.  The Voynich Manuscript.  It is an illustrated codex hand-written in an unknown writing system. The vellum on which it is written has been carbon-dated to the early 15th century (1404–1438), and it may have been composed in Northern Italy during the Italian Renaissance. The manuscript is named after Lillian’s husband, as I mentioned above.  It has been studied by many professional and amateur cryptographers, including American and British codebreakers from both World War I and World War II.  No one has yet demonstrably deciphered the text, and it has become a famous case in the history of cryptography. The mystery of the meaning and origin of the manuscript has excited the popular imagination, making the manuscript the subject of novels and speculation. None of the many hypotheses proposed over the last hundred years has yet been independently verified.  None of this has anything to do with The Gadfly.  I just thought it was an interest side note.

THE PRISONER OF HEAVEN by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

“Deep down we’ve never been who we think we once were, and we only remember what never happened.”

Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a Spanish novelist. Born in Barcelona in 1964, he has lived in Los Angeles since 1994, and might possibly be the most popular author in Europe.

This is the third in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books cycle.  The other two, The Shadow of the Wind, and The Angel’s Game, I talked about here, and here.   In this continuation, as it were, of  the story of Daniel Sempere, the bookseller’s son, he is married to his childhood sweetheart, has a small son, and his BFF is Fermin, the scrawny fellow we first met in The Shadow of the Wind.  We learn more about Fermin, in a long section devoted to his time in prison, and his eventual escape.

It is Barcelona, 1957.  Fermin is about to marry!  Wow, the confirmed bachelor is going to get married?  But it is marred by the appearance of a mysterious, dangerous-seeming individual who comes to the bookshop looking for Fermin.  When Fermin learns this guy is on his tail, he freaks.  That is when we learn about Fermin’s past and just how he came to be in the lives of the Semperes.

It is melodrama.  Somehow, melodrama set in mid-20th century Europe seems so much niftier than just plain old ordinary melodrama.  Those dark days of Franco’s reign were referred to as the heart of darkness,  which phrase continually popped up as well in  Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.  I love it when synchronicity happens like that. I leave you with a quote about stories of difficult times:

Once the last page is turned, the poison of its words will drag them [the readers] slowly but inexorably towards the heart of darkness.

Franco, dictator of Spain, and you-know-who.

 

THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS by Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy has the ability to tell a riveting story, but one that has a dark undertone.   I talk about The Ministry of Utmost Happiness  here.   

This story is not so complex and sprawling as The Ministry..  It is more contained, tighter.  It is about twins, two-egg twins, Dizygotic.  A male and a female.  And their single parent mother, the mother’s brother, and the poisonous ex-nun aunt, sister of the grandmother of the twins.  And of the beautiful  irreplaceable untouchable caste man.

“They all crossed into forbidden territory.  They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how.  And how much.”  The mother loved an inappropriate man;  the untouchable loved hopelessly a woman who could not be his; the twins loved each other; the ex-nun loved a priest; a pedophile loved all little boys;  the mother’s brother loved a woman who found she couldn’t love him and so divorced him.

It was 1969 in India, the time of Marxism and the Communists.  The family had a pickling business, and the village had communists and trade unionists.  And touchables and untouchables.  It moves back and forth from the childhood of the twins, to the present day, telling the story of their lives, and how many relations are not permitted.

The book is cleverly constructed, and the writing is almost poetic in many places.  The weaving of the older story with the current story, the stories of the various characters intertwining — just masterful, so compelling you cannot stop reading.

The god of small things is also referred to as the god of loss in the book. It seems to refer to Velutha, the untouchable man.

This book was the winner of the Booker Prize in 1997.  Yeah, I know.  I just got around to reading it.

One funny quote for you, just because I liked it.

Comrade Pillai’s arms were crossed over his chest, and he clasped his own armpits possessively, as though someone has asked to borrow them and he had just refused.

The quality of the writing style, of the construction of the plot, so far exceeds the shopworn topic of forbidden love and prudery as to make the reader forget that those well-worn themes are the bones of the book.

 

THE SUMMER BOOK by Tove Jansson

What a sweet book!  It was written in 1972, in Finnish, and we are fortunate to have a translation.  It is about a little girl whose mother has died, her paternal grandmother and her father, and their summers on a very small one-house island in the Bay of Finland, off the coast of ….. oh, crumb. I don’t remember.  Somewhere.  It is about nature, and the relationship between the somewhat elderly grandmother and the girl, with references to the father, although he really does not play a large part.  It is fiction, but reads like memoir, based as it is on some of the author’s own childhood memories.

It has that Annie Dillard feel to it,  you know, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek?,  but less sanctimonious.  It is just a lovely read.

Tove Jansson was born and died in Helsinki, Finland. As a Finnish citizen whose mother tongue was Swedish, she was part of the Swedish-speaking Finns minority. All her books were originally written in Swedish.