Review 2126: The Flight Portfolio

As soon as I finished reading Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge, I looked to see what else she had written, and that’s how I found The Flight Portfolio. This novel is based on true events with real historical characters except for Elliott Grant and some main invented characters.

It’s 1940, and American journalist Varian Fry is working in Marseille as the head of a charitable organization. Its mission is to help as many European artists, writers, and other intellectuals as it can to leave Europe and escape the Nazis. This mission is supposed to be legal but of course Fry has to use illegal means to evacuate people sought by the Nazis or by the Vichy government. The book begins with him trying to persuade the Chagalls to leave, but they think they are unassailable.

Into the chaos of the office work, including the eviction of the charity, comes a request for a meeting. It is from Varian’s old schoolmate at Harvard, in fact his ex-lover, Elliott Grant, who disappeared when Varian decided to pursue marriage and a normal life. Grant has come to ask Varian’s help in finding the son of his own lover, Professor Gregor Katznelson, a brilliant nuclear physicist who is somewhere in Europe trying to evade the Nazis.

While Varian works hard trying to get exit papers and arrange routes of escape, his relationship with Grant rekindles. He is forced to face his old decision and determine whether he wants to continue hiding his real self. His office faces searches and arrests, closures of escape routes, arrangements made only for clients to refuse to leave, blockages by government officials, and other obstacles.

The novel is riveting. Orringer is not only an excellent writer but a great story teller. I love it when I discover someone who is this good.

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Review 2124: A Train to Moscow

A Train to Moscow is Elena Gorokhova’s first novel, coming after two memoirs. Although its story is similar to that of A Mountain of Crumbs, including where it ends (which I found frustrating both times), I still found it affecting.

Sasha grows up in a small Russian village with a nose and disdain for mendacity, which, as it is the Stalin years, is dangerous for her. Her best friends are boys—Marik, who is her same age and shares her interests, and Andrei, who is two years older and disapproved of by her mother. When she is a pre-teen, she discovers her Uncle Kolya’s diary hidden away in the attic. Her uncle never returned from World War II, and the family has heard nothing from him, but his diary describes a war unlike the patriotic and courageous venture she learned about in school. Periodically, the novel includes excerpts from this diary.

When Sasha hears a play on the radio, she realizes she wants to become an actress. As she nears graduation from secondary school, she knows her family won’t approve her decision to try out for drama school in Moscow. Nor will Andrei, who is now her boyfriend and has just lost his parents and home in a fire.

This is a strong novel about family and hidden secrets, about being true to oneself, and about an abiding love.

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Review 2109: Orphans of the Carnival

After reading Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie, I had high expectations for Orphans of the Carnival, especially as it had in common the carnival setting. However, my reactions to this novel were much more mixed.

The subject of the novel is a woman who really existed, Julia Pastrana, a 19th century performer. Julia was more than a performer, though. She was a famous “freak” at a time when such shows were popular. She is described only here and there and in pieces so that we slowly get an idea of what she looked like, but she was labeled an ape-woman, among other names.

The novel opens as Julia has decided to take up a showman’s offer and leave her home in Mexico, where she works as a servant, to travel to New Orleans to work in a sideshow. But her hunger for travel and adventure is stifled, because her boss wants her to stay out of view except when she’s on exhibit, discouraging her from even walking around heavily veiled, as she usually does.

Julia eventually changes agents and quickly becomes world famous, being an accomplished performer and speaking several languages. But she yearns for a fulfilling private life.

The trouble is, Birch didn’t succeed in making Julia an interesting personality. This problem may be because she was a real person and Birch didn’t want to take too many liberties, but sometimes I want to say to authors, “Your characters aren’t inherently interesting even if you put them in interesting situations. You have to make them interesting.” Further, she doesn’t do much with the carnival setting.

Birch also uses at least one anachronism when she puts Julia in pantyhose. Pantyhose wasn’t actually invented until 1959 and was called “panty legs” at first. The term “pantyhose” didn’t become common until the mid-1960’s.

There is also a present-time story about a woman who fills her apartment with lots of odd objects she’s picked up. There seems to be no connection between the two story lines until the very end of the book. However, when they do link up, the connecting is haunting.

The end of the novel is very much the best part of the book, but otherwise I had trouble staying with it and read two other books in between starting and finishing it. This for me means I am having trouble concentrating on the one I’m reading.

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Review 2058: Crudo

If I had ever heard of Kathy Acker, I might have appreciated Crudo, which I read for my James Tait Black project, more. The novel incorporates her writing and depicts a woman named Kathy who has had a double mastectomy and otherwise seems to echo Acker’s life except that it is set in 2017, some years after her death.

The novel is primarily a character study. Its events, with some reminiscences, are days leading up to her wedding and the month afterwards. She is extremely neurotic and sometimes seems almost paralyzed by world events. She is commitment phobic and yet is getting married, so she obsesses about that. She thinks in very graphic terms and expresses herself crudely at times. She decides to do something and changes her mind. She has screaming fits because the deck was painted brown.

Altogether, she is a difficult and infuriating woman. I didn’t like her at all, which interfered with my enjoyment of the novel.

Laing’s writing is clean and vivid. She appropriates the words of others as did Acker, but her appropriations are noted at the end of the novel.

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Review 2047: Booth

Booth follows the lives of the family of John Wilkes Booth, beginning before he is born. Written from the alternating points of view of some of his siblings, it begins when Rosalie, his oldest sister, is a young girl. Her father, a famous actor, is known as much for his drunken bouts and acts of insanity as his theatrical genius. He is often away. Rosalie’s mother is in a state of depression as, one by one, several of her children have died. Rosalie herself is missing the latest one, her favorite brother, Henry.

The family lives on a farm in Maryland that is run by their black servants, the Halls. These servants are slaves—someone else’s that Junius Booth leases, but he also pays them a wage so that they can save up to free themselves. So, the Booth family’s inconsistent stance on slavery comes in right from the beginning.

This book is interesting. It follows the growth of all the Booth siblings through several shocks—the first being the discovery that their father and mother aren’t legally married. They find this out after they move to Baltimore. His legal wife tracks them down all the way from England and follows them on the street shouting horrible things. Some of them develop a fear of sullying the family honor that is eventually forever shattered.

John Wilkes Booth becomes the son favored by their mother, the handsome one, the one who can do no wrong. He is also determined to put his mark on the world but not so interested in working hard to do it.

All of the family members have their difficulties and foibles, which makes it an interesting story. Interspersed between the chapters about the Booths are short ones about Lincoln’s progress as a politician and then as President.

Fowler says she thought of this topic when thinking of the families of our recent mass murderers. That’s exactly what I thought of when reading this novel.

It’s been interesting to see how Karen Joy Fowler has been developing, from the author of a few rather negligible although readable books to what I think is still her masterpiece, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. I like that she seems to be adventurous in picking her subjects.

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Review 2021: A House in the Country

All during the war, Ruth, her husband, four friends, and the Adam children have been stuffed into an uncomfortable house in London, suffering privations of every sort. As early as 1941, they all began dreaming of taking a house in the country together, where they could have space, good food, and plenty of fresh air for the children. At the end of the war, Ruth finds an ad for a large house in Kent, 33 rooms. They go to see it and fall in love.

They figure that with their combined incomes, they can barely afford it. Ruth will do the housekeeping. The house comes with Howard, a handyman/gardener who has lived there most of his life and whose assistance proves invaluable.

Adam lets us know right away that this plan doesn’t work, but the descriptions of the beauties of the landscape and garden sometimes made me forget this. Written with a deadpan humor, the autobiographical novel tracks the ups and downs of this experience, through employment issues, attempts at agriculture, paying guests, house sharing. But as Adam repeatedly states, the house was built to be served, not to serve.

The story of the hapless occupants is funny and touching. I found it fascinating.

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Review 1895: The Magician

Although I’ve only read one work by Thomas Mann, I still found The Magician, based on Mann’s life and writings, interesting. Although Mann himself often seems inert in this novel, he lived in interesting times, during both world wars.

The novel covers Mann’s life from a young man who is dispossessed by his father to his relocation from California to Switzerland in his 70’s. It examines the thinking behind his greatest works and although fairly meditative in tone, has some excitement during the Mann’s flight from Nazi Germany.

In some ways The Magician is reminiscent of The Master, Tóibín’s novel about Henry James, with Mann fantasizing about young men but never acting on those fantasies after a couple of abortive encounters. The difference is that James seemed almost unaware of his own proclivities. Mann still managed to have a long, successful marriage with his wife Katia.

Tóibín’s biographical fiction always seems intuitive and thoughtful to me. I enjoyed this one despite my lack of knowledge about its subject. I read this novel for my Walter Scott Prize project.

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Review 1838: #1954 Club! Katherine

The latest year-based club sponsored by Simon and Karen is the 1954 Club! As usual, in this first post for the club, there are several books published in 1954 that I have already reviewed, so here they are:

Actually, I thought there were a lot more, but it turns out they were books I had read previous to my starting my blog, books like Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart, The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkein, Mary Anne by Daphne Du Maurier, and don’t let’s forget Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P. G. Wodehouse.

Katherine is the first book I read for the club. It is a highly romanticized tale of Katherine Swynford, the mistress for many years of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and second son of Edward III, who eventually married her and legitimized their children.

In 1366, Katherine de Roet leaves the convent where she has been raised to join her sister Philippa at court. Philippa is to marry Geoffrey Chaucer and hopes to find a husband for her sister. Soon, one appears, for Katherine is astonishingly beautiful. She is offered a marriage she couldn’t normally expect to Sir Hugh Swynford, a landed knight who is infatuated with her. She is repelled by him, but she has no say in her marriage.

Hugh is the Duke of Lancaster’s man, and Katherine finds Duchess Blanche to be a beautiful and kind woman. She is entranced by the Duchess, but she finds herself uncomfortably attracted to the Duke.

Hugh takes Katherine home to their estate, which is meager and poorly run, and basically leaves her there pregnant while he goes off to war, the Duke being determined to capture Castile and rule it. The novel details her life, and after the deaths of both their spouses, their love affair.

Seton says in the beginning of the book that she used nothing but historical fact for her story. Yet, I wasn’t quite buying it. It seems clear that Katherine and the Duke were seriously attached, but Seton depicts Katherine as sweet and naïve, without ambition. She probably had to in 1954, to legitimize having an adultress (as Katherine would have been viewed then) as a heroine. I’m willing to bet that a woman who rose from almost nothing in that age to be the second highest woman in England had some ambition. And more power to her.

The novel shows a great deal of knowledge of medieval customs, dress, and cuisine. Still, it’s so highly romanticized that I found it a little hard to take at times. What it accomplished for me was a desire to read about Swynford from a reputable biography.

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Review 1572: Shadowplay

Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light dealt with a relationship in the life of the playwright John Millington Synge. Shadowplay deals with a period in the life of another Irish literary figure, Bram Stoker.

In a novel that shifts back and forth over a 30-year time period, Stoker goes to work as general manager for the Lyceum Theater in London, having been hired by Henry Irving, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his time. Stoker has taken what he believes is a part-time job that will allow him to work on his fiction, but he finds himself assuming responsibility for everything in the theater, an overwhelming position. Further, he has to cope with his employer’s extravagance and his occasional wild rages. Worse, Irving is dismissive of Stoker’s literary efforts. Nevertheless, they form a lasting friendship.

Also involved in the theater is the famous actress Ellen Terry. Shadowplay is primarily about the enduring relationship between these three. However, it reflects other events of its time, particularly Jack the Ripper and the trial of Oscar Wilde. It deals with Stoker’s struggles to earn a living as a writer, a feat he never accomplished. And it has a ghost.

Shadowplay, which I read for my Walter Scott project, was involving and interesting.

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Review 1476: Immortal Wife

Irving Stone was extremely popular in the mid-20th century for mostly biographical fiction. His most famous novels are The Agony and the Ecstacy about Michelangelo and Lust for Life about Vincent Van Gogh. Immortal Wife is his second book, about the life of Jessie Benton Fremont, the wife of explorer John C. Fremont.

Jessie Fremont certainly had an exciting life, even though a lot of her time was spent waiting. She was actively involved in her husband’s professional life. The work she did of helping her father write his reports when she was unmarried, she continued with the reports Fremont submitted after his explorations. She lived on an Indian reservation during his second expedition. She was one of the first white women to travel to San Francisco via a trek across Panama. She lived in untamed San Francisco and later Mariposa during the lawless days of the Gold Rush. When Fremont lost a fortune through unwise partnerships, she supported the family by writing stories.

Fremont was a controversial figure, and Jessie was partly to blame for a lot of the controversy. Upon his first command, she prevented him from receiving orders that would have made him turn back, and he was courtmartialed later partially because of this incident. Her advice resulted in more than one incident like this. Partially because of an attitude that the couple knew best, their fortunes underwent many ups and downs. Jessie was quite interfering in her attempts to help her husband, and they made many enemies.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. Part of my problem with it wasn’t fair, because I don’t believe in judging a book out of its time. But it was so accepting of Manifest Destiny, the right of the United States to the lands of the west. Fremont essentially starts a war as an excuse to steal California from Mexico, stating that Mexico wasn’t doing anything with it. Comments after an expedition that he had stood on top of a mountain in the Wind River region where no one stood before obviously meant no white men. This kind of thing grated on me for the first quarter of the novel.

On the positive side, the novel is interesting and well researched. On the negative side, at 400 dense pages, it is a bit longer than it needs to be through many episodes of Jessie’s heart-rendings about her marriage. Finally, although Stone clearly meant Jessie to be a sympathetic character, I didn’t like her much.

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