Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the first Sue Miller novel I've read. It took me awhile to get used to her style, but in the end it was worth it. This book was a reaction to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Billy, the main character, lost her lover, Gus, who was killed when the plane he was on was flown into one of the twin towers. But this wasn't a simple story about losing someone you love in a senseless act of terror. There were problems with Billy and Gus' relationship and those problems left Billy feeling confused and guilty. Since she was a playwright, she wrote a play about those feelings. The name of that play was The Lake Shore Limited, hence the name of the novel.

There were a couple of things that I found very unusual about Miller's style. First of all she included a great amount of detail that at first seemed superfluous, yet that detail seemed to push me into the characters' minds by emphasizing everything they might notice in their surroundings. Secondly, Miller generally told her readers what her characters were thinking instead of letting us see reactions that would show us their thoughts. Here's an excerpt from the novel that shows both those techniques:

“Yeah,” Pierce answered. They were all standing now. They moved into the aisle among the others inching back to the lobby. Pierce kept his hand on her elbow—a kind of sympathetic connection, she felt. She was grateful to him, but she was far away. She felt confused. Around her, she could hear others talking, speculating, commenting on the actors, on the arguments.

Some weren't. Some had shed the play quickly, were on to their own lives. She heard a voice say, “I wish I'd known it was going to rain today. I didn't bring an umbrella to work.”

All of Miller's characters seemed to analyze their own emotions and situations as if their lives were one gigantic therapy session. At the reception following a memorial service for Gus, Billy met a number of Gus' friends and colleagues who had heard about her through Gus. She kept thinking how she should be honest and explain everything, including why she wasn't part of the service. But she didn't because she felt explaining herself would be self-aggrandizing. This was his memorial service, not hers. The strange way Billy's mind worked, combined with her lack of emotion was intriguing.

I loved the way the play within a book worked. The characters in the play were aspects of Billy and all part of her need to be honest about her feelings. Also, I've been involved in school theater and community theater for years, so I can identify with the backstage activity

Oddly, I finished reading this novel the week of the Boston Marathon bombings.

I plan to read more of Sue Miller's work.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Blood of Flowers is a historical novel set in 17th century Iran during the reign of Shah Abbas the Great. It's the story of a young woman who spends her first years in a small village, then, after the death of her father, moves to Isfahan, a large center of commerce. The culture and economy is male dominated, so when the narrator loses her father, she and her mother have to depend on the good will of an uncle, who is a carpet maker for the Shah. (The uncle's wife isn't thrilled with the extra expenses that come with these two relatives.)

The narrator is also an excellent carpet maker. Perhaps the talent runs in the family, but it still feels like a coincidence that this young woman ends up in a place where she can develop her skills. The book's one weakness is the author's use of coincidences. This is one. There's another later in the book that is critical to the plot.

The culture also has a tradition that seems to benefit the men in this male dominated society. Men, who can have many wives, can also marry some of them for short periods of time. A marriage like this is called a sigheh and can range from months to an hour in length. A sigheh is legal, but doesn't have the status of a full marriage. The roles of the women in these marriages seem to fall somewhere between the position of a permanent wife and a prostitute. The shorter the length of time for a singheh the less status there is. However, there are financial benefits to a sigheh marriage and the children of those marriages are generally acknowledged.

I loved the way this book transported me to a culture that is so different from our modern one. There were so many instances where characters were forced to act or dress (picheh and chador) in ways that seemed unfair, but this was all they knew so the rules didn't bother them. Yet in some ways the narrator overcame gender traditions, specifically when it came to her carpets.

The other part of the book that I found fascinating was the relationship between the narrator and her mother. They always loved each other, but sometimes disappointed each other as well. And often, because of the cultural differences, the one I saw as the guilty party and the one they saw as the guilty party were not the same.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

The StorytellerThe Storyteller by Jodi Picoult
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Storyteller is a wonderful book, one of the most powerful novels I've read in a long time. It is a story within a story within a story. The way the three plots affect each other, while remaining strong enough to stand on their own, is amazing.

The first plot is about Sage Singer, a woman in her twenties, who has lost her mother in an auto accident. Sage was driving the car and has to deal with the guilt that comes with surviving. (Something that becomes more important as the rest of the story unfurls.) Sage was left with a facial scar that she dwells on because it symbolizes what she's been through. She feels as if everyone thinks she is ugly, but the people around her don't act as if they do. She also feels that the people who loved her mother, her grandmother and her sisters in particular, hate her for what has happened. But they also don't act as if they do.

Sage Singer meets an elderly man, a German, at her grief group. He asks her for two favors, powerful favors, that propel Sage forward in a way she never imagined would be her fate in life. His requests lead her to a conversation with her grandmother. Sage's grandmother, whom she calls Nana, is a survivor of Auschwitz. Nana has spent her life in America trying to forget her life in Poland. There is a parallel to Sage's survivor's guilt that isn't emphasized but is an important part of the book.

In a unique and beautiful way, Jodi Picoult has tied all three stories together with the work of baking bread. The acts of breaking bread together or of preparing a special baked treat for someone you love are used over and over throughout the story. Sage is not the first baker in her family. Her grandmother's father also made his living as a baker. Sage's sisters are named Pepper and Saffron, indicating how important spice was to her mother.

Late in the book Sage is sitting in a temple, taken there by Leo, a man she is working with. Sage is an atheist, but with a Jewish heritage. Although she hasn't spent much time in synagogs, she is affected by the place and the people there. Here are some of her thoughts:

I don't believe in God, but sitting there, in a room full of those who feel otherwise, I realize that I do believe in people, in their strength to help each other and to thrive in spite of the odds....I believe that having something to hope for, even if it is just a better tomorrow, is the most powerful drug on this planet.

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Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Lathe of Heaven was published more than forty years ago, but the ideas do not seem dated. That's good for the book, but not so good for the world in general. I found it interesting that the book covers environmental concerns, such as overpopulation and global warming, that are still being debated today.

The basic idea of the plot is simple. When George Orr dreams, he wakes up in a new world where aspects of his dreams have become real. When Dr. Haber discovers Orr's power, he manipulates it to make a better universe. The forced changes all have side effects or come about due to problems that are worse than the original ones. At first glance the theme is that we shouldn't play God. But the world Orr started with was brought back from the edge of destruction by his dreams. Le Guin seems to be saying that our influence on the world is better left to our subconscious minds and to our desire for self preservation than it is to our conscious efforts. I don't agree with that idea, but I do find it interesting.

George Orr's relationship with Heather LeLache is intriguing. She starts the book as a lawyer he contacts to help him break away from the influence of Dr. Haber. She's hard and bitter. As the story continues Heather becomes different and the most important person in Orr's life. In most books I would have attributed the changes to the way their relationship develops. In The Lathe of Heaven she seems to be manipulated by Orr's dreams. That's fascinating and creepy.

The fact that Le Guin could carry off this idea is amazing, yet she does it extremely well. With an idea that forces everything about the book to change at various points along the way, how can their be any consistency? But it works and I found it to be a hard book to put down.