Day 574: Little Bee

2 Sep

Cover for Little BeeLittle Bee begins her story from a detention center in England, where she has been held for two years. During this time, she has been learning British English in the hopes she will be allowed to stay. After another girl seduces a guard, Little Bee is released with her and two other girls, with no papers or money, into the depths of the English countryside. Bee calls the only person she knows in England, Andrew O’Rourke, a man she met on a beach in Nigeria two years before.

Sarah O’Rourke is getting ready to attend her husband’s funeral. He had been depressed ever since that day on the beach. Then, suddenly, he committed suicide. When someone arrives at the door, Sarah is surprised to find Little Bee.

Eventually, we find out what happened that day on the beach—how Little Bee lost her sister and Sarah her finger. Sarah is posed with a problem. What can she do about Little Bee to help her stay protected in England? To the British government, Nigeria is a safe country from which Little Bee does not need refuge. The government does not know or is unwilling to learn that the oil companies are murdering entire villages to get rights to the oil beneath them.

I found Little Bee to be affecting all right, and it informed me of a situation I did not know existed. With all the bad news about various countries in Africa lately, I had not heard mention of Nigeria (at least not in this respect).

A few people have written reviews complaining about the ending. Perhaps they like their endings nicely wrapped up. I don’t mind ambiguity, but I did feel sometimes as if I was being manipulated. In addition, Little Bee’s voice, although enchanting and original, is not consistent enough. At times she is amazingly naive, sometimes convincingly so, others not so much. It is some of her more sophisticated knowledge that occasionally doesn’t ring true with the character Cleave has created and can’t be explained by two years of reading classics.

In any case, it is Sarah’s stunning naivety that is more unbelievable, both on the beach that day and when she decides to interview people in Nigeria instead of immediately contacting a lawyer or her embassy in an attempt to save Bee.

With all these caveats, I enjoyed the book, though, and give it a qualified recommendation.

Day 573: The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay

29 Aug

Cover for The Selected Poetry of Edna St. Vincent MillayPoetry is not really my expertise, so I feel awkward trying to write this. Of course, I came to this book familiar with a few of Millay’s most well-known poems, particularly “First Fig.” The poem that made Millay’s reputation was “Renascence,” about a person who is buried in the earth alive and springs back out.

I think this is an interesting book for someone not familiar with Millay. It contains most of her best-known poems from several different collections.

Although Millay was known as a master writer of sonnets and this book contains many sonnets, I think I prefer some of her less formal, cheekier poems, for example, “Thursday.” I also liked the poems that reflect her familiarity with old Celtic and British folk ballads—whose rhythms sound like someone singing a ghostly Border ballad.

After reading in Milford’s biography about Millay’s wonderful voice, I looked for a recording on YouTube. I was delighted to find an atmospheric performance of “The Ballad of the Harpweaver,” recorded for radio.

You might be interested in reading my review of the biography of her life.

Day 572: Lisette’s List

28 Aug

Cover for Lisette's ListIn 1937, Lisette and André Roux are on their way to Provence. Lisette has abandoned the opportunity to become an apprentice at the Galerie Laforgue and André his job as the frame builder for famous artists. They have left their beloved Paris to take care of André’s grandfather Pascal, for Pascal has written to say that he is dying.

When they arrive in Pascal’s village of Rousillon, however, they find Pascal has been out playing boules. Lisette is horrified at leaving her life behind on a false pretense. Pascal is sometimes ill, but he is mostly lonely.

He also has a legacy he wants to pass down. Pascal owns seven paintings by masters that he traded for picture frames back when the painters were struggling. He wants to pass to Lisette the stories about these paintings, three by Pisarro and three by Cézanne and one study of heads by an unknown artist. Pascal is also proud of Rousillon, where workers have dug ochre out of the ground for centuries to make the paints used in these paintings.

Although Vreeland’s descriptions of Provence and Rousillon are evocative, I feel that the first part of the novel gets bogged down in these teaching moments of Pascal’s. Even though I am interested in art, these conversations are too didactic to come across as authentic.

There are other moments like this farther into the novel, but it picks up during and after World War II in Lisette’s efforts to survive as a Parisienne alone in the village. André leaves to fight at the beginning of the war. Before he leaves, though, he hides the paintings because he has heard that the Germans will search out art and either take it or destroy it because of decadence.

http://www.netgalley.comI was mildly interested in this novel. It is clear that Vreeland loves art, and she does a fine job of evoking the paintings and the gorgeous landscapes of Provence. She is so interested in these subjects, though, that we get a much sketchier idea of the character of Pascal, for example, or André.

Day 571: The Goldfinch

26 Aug

Cover for The GoldfinchTheo Decker is hiding in an Amsterdam hotel, ill and terrified. He is afraid to set foot in the street. Through most of The Goldfinch, Theo relates the roots of his troubles, which lie 15 years in the past.

Thirteen-year-old Theo is out in New York City for a day with his mother. Normally, this would be a day he’d enjoy, but he is in trouble at his prep school, and they are on the way to school for a meeting. They are early, though, and his mother wants to stop at the museum to look at an exhibit.

Inside the museum, he spots an unusual couple—a hunch-backed old man and a fairy-like red-haired girl. He is only half attentive to his mother’s explanations of the paintings because he is looking at the girl. They stop to view a painting called The Goldfinch, one of the few remaining works by a Dutch artist named Fabritius.

Theo’s mother goes off to the gift shop while Theo trails after the girl. A few minutes later, Theo is knocked out by an explosion from a terrorist attack. When he comes to, the museum is oddly empty, but he finds the old man dying. The man gives him a ring and tells him to take it to an address, and then he suggests that Theo pick up The Goldfinch from a pile of dust and take it with him. He does, an act that becomes a defining moment of his life.

Assuming that his mother got out okay, Theo goes home, but he soon finds that she was killed. Since his ne’er-do-well father disappeared from their lives, it has been just the two of them for years. Social services ends up taking him to stay with the wealthy family of one of his school friends, the Barbours.

Suffering from grief and untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, Theo tries to hide his insecurity and discomfort. As formal as the Barbour household is, he likes Mrs. Barbour and worries that the family might want him to leave. Eventually, he takes the old man’s ring to the address and meets the man’s partner Hobie and the girl, Pippa, who was badly injured in the explosion. She soon goes away to live with her aunt, but Theo continues to visit Hobie, who is a furniture restorer. And he is always in love with Pippa.

Just after Theo is invited to spend the summer in Maine with the Barbours, his whole life changes again. His father arrives and removes him abruptly from New York to Las Vegas. Theo is left to himself most of the time in a deserted suburb at the edge of the desert. His father at first appears to be well off, but soon it is clear he is living on the edges. Theo befriends another outcast, a Ukranian boy named Boris, and the two begin a slide into drugs and alcohol and the margins of society. Even after he returns to New York and tries to pull his life together, the secret of the painting serves as both a pleasure and a hidden terror.

It seems as if I am giving away a lot, but I have covered only the beginning of this long, involving novel. It explores such themes as the trauma of loss, the yearning for love, and the fragility of happiness and the present. In losing his mother, Theo seems to have lost his moral compass, so that even as he tries to help people, he creates problems for them and himself.

Tartt’s characters are complex and fully realized. Even the villains have facets to their personalities. Although Theo thinks of his father as a scoundrel—and he certainly has few redeeming qualities—Boris points out to him that when Boris was alone with nothing, Theo’s father took him in. An older Theo fears he has too much of his father in him.

The Goldfinch remains a golden, potent symbol throughout the novel. Theo loves the painting and feels that owning it somehow gives him stature. Yet at the same time he is terrified he’ll be found with it. Just as the bird in the picture is shackled, so Theo is captive to the painting.

Throughout the novel Theo disappointed me with his self-destructive tendencies even though he has good intentions. Still, Tartt tells a story that absolutely impels you to keep reading. This is a wonderful job of storytelling.

Best Book of the Week!

25 Aug

Cover for Jack MaggsThis week’s Best Book is Jack Maggs by Peter Carey!

Day 570: Murder in Pigalle

22 Aug

Cover for Murder in PigalleParis during the sticky summer of 1998 is in chaos because of the impending World Cup. Private detective Aimée Leduc is in her office worrying about paying her taxes when her 13-year-old neighbor Zazie comes to see her. Zazie explains that some girls her age, including her friend Melanie, were raped, and that she has a lead on the rapist.

Aimée promises to meet with Zazie about it later that day, all the while planning to warn Zazie’s mother Virginie about her daughter’s sleuthing activities. But Aimée doesn’t make it to Virginie’s until that evening, and by then Zazie is already an hour late coming home. A visit to the friend Zazie said she was seeing turns up another crime scene—Zazie’s friend Sylvaine has just been raped. All of these girls were home alone.

Aimée is convinced that Zazie somehow found the rapist and he took her. But the police think Zazie is a teenage runaway.

In what at first appears to be a side plot, a parolee named Zacharíe is being forced to commit a crime. His client has kidnapped Zacharie’s daughter Mary Jo to keep him from abandoning the job. With Mary Jo was a little friend, Zazie.

Aimée doggedly pursues her investigation despite her condition—she is six months pregnant. Helping her are her partner René and their cyber expert Saj.

I had heard good things about this series but wasn’t really impressed. Although Black may have developed the main characters in earlier books, she certainly doesn’t do much with them here. The book races from action to action, leaving a lot of loose ends untied or ignored. Right from the beginning, Aimée has some photos Zazie tells her were taken using her friend’s telephoto lens. Yet no one follows up by trying to figure out who the friend is. When they eventually find out it is Mary Jo, Aimée spends no effort on finding the girl, just making a few feeble efforts to contact her parents.

Another example—later in the novel, Aimée kills a man in self-defense, then she and another person flee the scene. Yet we never hear about the dead man again.

These omissions all go to my feeling that Aimée’s world is not fully realized. Paris is not much of a presence in the novel, even though Black mentions various locations. We hear, for example, about the dangers of Pigalle, but we don’t really learn what it is like. We don’t really get a flavor of Aimée’s world.

Day 569: The Castle of Wolfenbach

20 Aug

Cover for The Castle of WolfenbachThe Castle of Wolfenbach is one of several “horrid” novels referred to in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. All of these novels, as I reported awhile back, are packaged together in a book for Kindle, so I thought I’d try them out.

This novel begins in the wilds of Switzerland on a stormy night when a mysterious young lady asks for shelter for herself and her servant at a small cottage. The inhabitants of the cottage take the fugitives to the nearby Castle of Wolfenbach for more comfortable accommodations. This castle is not being occupied by its owner but is maintained by two servants, and the castle’s upper floors are reputed to be haunted.

The young lady, Matilda Weimar, is not afraid of ghosts, however. She sleeps upstairs, and although she hears noises and sees lights across from her bedroom window, she goes the next day to explore that part of the castle. There she finds in residence an older lady and her female servant. The castle servant Joseph knows they are there, but his talkative wife does not.

Matilda explains why she is a fugitive. She has never known her parents, but was raised by her uncle. Lately, her uncle has begun showing her attentions that make her uncomfortable. What made her flee was that she overheard the housekeeper advising him to sneak into Matilda’s bedroom at night and claim her for his own.

The older lady, the Countess of Wolfenbach, offers to tell part of her story to Matilda, but Matilda asks her to wait until the next day. However, that night there is a disturbance, and Matilda visits the “haunted” area of the castle the next day to find the countess’s attendant murdered and the countess gone. When Matilda was leaving the countess the day before, however, the countess offered to send a letter to her sister in Paris asking for refuge for Matilda. Soon Matilda is on her way to the Marchioness of Melfort in Paris.

Matilda and her friends have many more adventures, in which Matilda unfailingly demonstrates her purity and honor. The evil Herr Weimar chases after her and tries to remove her from her friends, telling her that he is not actually her uncle but found her by the roadside. A young count falls in love with her, but her scruples about her unknown lineage do not permit her to accept his proposal of marriage. Temporarily, she retires to a convent.

The plot of the novel is quite convoluted and involves several kidnappings, pirates, murders, deathbed confessions, scandalous rumors, defamation of character, and other food for melodrama. Characters are mostly either good or evil, although all the evil people repent. Dialogue is elaborate and ceremonial.

This novel is not terribly scary to modern sensibilities, nor does Parsons do a very good job of creating suspense. But The Castle of Wolfenbach, which was written in 1793, is an early effort in what is essentially a genre of potboilers. Although Matilda is so good and does a lot of fainting, she at least shows some occasional evidence of spunk. Even as scary as its contemporary audiences found it, there is little doubt of a happy ending.

WolfenbachI was disappointed not to find a spooky cover available for this novel, although the one for the collection I am reading isn’t bad, so I attach a picture of this scary castle. It came up on a search for the cover, but I actually have no idea at all where it came from.



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