Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Soldier's Wife by Margaret Leroy

The Soldier's WifeThe Soldier's Wife by Margaret Leroy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At first I thought The Soldier's Wife was going to tell a story that would be a lot like the David Lean film Ryan's Daughter, because both are about forbidden love during a war. But Margaret Leroy's book takes a few turns along the way. It's about love of family as much as it is about romantic love and dealing with the risks that occur when the two types of love conflict. It's also about duty and compassion. The plot has tension and romance and is set in Guernsey, one of the channel islands off the coast of Normandy. The time frame is World War II, when Germany took over the island.

One of the interesting aspects of this novel is the story of how Vivienne has to deal with the normal problems of raising a family while the war puts extra burdens on her. She has two daughters, Blanche, a teenager and her much younger sister, Millie. She is also living with her mother-in-law, who is suffering from dementia. The case is mild at first but grows worse as the story continues. Vivienne's husband is away fighting against Germany. She doesn't have his help, but it doesn't sound as if he was much help before he went off to war. Blanche is starting to like boys when many of them are the young German soldiers occupying the island, so that presents a complication. Meanwhile, Millie has the naivete of a child, but is forced to grow up quickly. Both daughters love their mother, but can rebel at inopportune times.

Margaret Leroy makes Guernsey sound like a beautiful place, one I would like to visit sometime – when there's no war there. Vivienne keeps a garden, picks berries in a nearby field, and travels everywhere by bicycle. The descriptions reminded me of Bermuda. There are a few situations that seem unbelievable at times, but overall the story rings true and Vivienne is someone I can care about. I think this is a great read for people who like World War II novels with interesting settings.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

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Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

The Museum of InnocenceThe Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Museum of Innocence is a wonderful book that needs some serious cutting. I listened to the audio version. The book works well in that form because there's plenty of repetition. If something distracts the listener, he or she can count on the idea that was missed being repeated at least a few times. But that said, the book is fascinating in countless ways.

The notes from the publisher call it, “...a stirring exploration of the nature of romance.” A line like that makes me wonder if the publicist read the book. This would be better – “...a stirring condemnation of a self-centered, self declared romanticist.” It was clear Orhan Pamuk was condemning someone or something, but tricky to figure out who or what. It could simply be the main character, Kemal. But it could also be Kemal's wealthy family, since his father had a similar affair and his mother looked the other way both times. Or it could be Turkish culture in general. Pamuk often mentions the difference between westernized culture and traditional culture in Turkey. The Wikipedia entry on the book centers on this, but I find the lover's misogyny to be the most interesting aspect and something that can be found in other cultures. Pamuk's writing is so detailed, and carefully constructed, he was probably thinking of all these aspects.

Kemal claims a great love for Fusun, but he seems to be in love with the way she moves her wrist or the way she walks, never with her ideas or her goals or her opinions. Appropriately, the book opens with a sex act which is in one of the least intimate positions possible. Kemal declares the day this happened as the happiest moment of his life. He is consumed with the idea of a woman as a work of art rather than a living person and from that focus comes the idea of preserving her in a museum.

As I said, I think the book is too repetitious, but what I loved about it greatly outweighs my opinion on that one aspect.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

How It All BeganHow It All Began by Penelope Lively
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How It All Began is a book to read for its interesting and subtle moments. It's great for readers who like to identify with the way characters react. It's not a book to read for plot. It has no overall plot, just subplots that are loosely connected, but have little affect on each other once they are going. Some of the stories end, but others don't. Penelope Lively seems to have done this intentionally, because toward the end of the book she says, “An ending is an artificial device...”

Anton and Henry are two intriguing personalities. Anton is an immigrant to England where the story takes place, coming from an unnamed eastern European country. He's a trained accountant, but has problems speaking English, so he's had to settle for manual work. We get to follow his struggles with the language and with his attraction to Rose. Henry is also an absorbing character. He's very out-of-date with his style of dress, mannerisms, and general attitudes. Combine those characteristics with mild dementia and Penelope Lively has created a fascinating personality.

However, it is the women who are the most captivating characters in this novel. Charlotte, Rose, and Marion alone make the book worth reading. Charlotte is Rose's mother as well as the woman whose mugging starts the novel rolling. She is also Anton's English tutor, which is how Rose and he meet. I loved reading Charlotte's reactions when I knew Rose's secret. Marion has her own set of relationship issues with both her business partners and her love interest.

The premise of How It All Began is that a single event can cause a number of changes to occur in the lives of loosely connected people. Most of the subplots hold true to that idea, but one of the major ones, does not. This is the story about the reaction of Henry, an aging historian, to problems he had when delivering a speech on 18th century life. Henry was embarrassed by his performance and decides to compensate for his failure by pursuing a different venue to express his ideas – television. Henry's life had been altered slightly because of the event that was “how it all began,” but the only change was that his niece had attended his lecture instead of his personal assistant. It seems to me his life would have played out the same even if the original event had never occurred.

Another nice aspect to this novel is Lively's tendency to branch off from her story to make interesting observations about aspects of life. Here's a section where Charlotte is thinking about how our perception of time changes as we age:

One persuasive explanation has to do with the changed nature of experience itself; when we are young, novelty abounds. We do, see, feel, taste, smell newly, day after day; this puts a brake on time. It hovers, while we savor each fresh moment. In old age, we've seen it all, to put it bluntly. Been there, done that. So time whisks by. Ah, that's why–those interminable days of childhood.

The thought is absorbing, even though it has very little to do with the rest of the book. Charlotte is also an avid reader, so we also get her opinions of readers such as Henry James. That's fun, too.

In short, this is a good book for readers who like interesting, quotable thoughts and well developed characters, but who don't care if a plot is a bit disconnected.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions

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