Day 1080: Moonglow

Cover for MoonglowMichael Chabon’s newest novel is supposedly inspired by his grandfather’s stories before he died. But I don’t think we’re supposed to take that literally, if only because he also says the novel was inspired by the stories of his mother’s uncle. In any case, it is a wandering, fascinating story of a complex life.

Grandfather’s stories begin with that of his arrest, when he was fired from his job to provide a place for Alger Hiss, newly out of jail, and attacked the corporation’s vice president. He was left with a hospitalized mentally ill wife and their teenage daughter. But the story wanders back and forth in time from his grandfather’s childhood in Philadelphia, his experiences searching for German scientists at the end of World War II, his work in the space industry. And always, there is his interest in the moon and space travel.

As always, Chabon manages to tackle some weighty topics while entertaining us like crazy. In this novel, he tackles German atrocities during the war and the stain they put on our own space program. Still, Grandfather’s life reads very much like an adventure story.

I really enjoyed this novel, much more so than I did Telegraph Avenue. Sometimes I enjoy Chabon more than other times, but I always find the journey interesting.

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Day 1021: Mariana

marianaAt the opening of Mariana, Mary hears that her husband’s ship has struck a mine and that there were many casualties. Her phone is dead and it is nighttime, so she must spend the night convinced her husband is dead. She goes back in her memory to her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood to consider how her life began.

As a young girl, Mary lives for her summer vacations at Charbury, her grandparents’ home, and it is Charbury she first remembers. Charbury means her wonderful room at the top of the house, her pony, and lots of running around with her cousins. In particular, this means Denys, with whom she is infatuated. Dickens’s descriptions of Charbury are delightful.

In the fall, Mary reluctantly returns home to the small flat where she lives with her mother and uncle, a largely unemployed actor. Her father married beneath him, but since his death Mrs. Shannon has insisted on her independence, and the small family struggles along. Certainly, her upbringing is unusual, because her mother and her brother are on the Bohemian side, although certainly affectionate guardians.

This novel follows Mary as she grows up and through her various relationships in her youth. We are pulled along by our interest in her and our curiosity about who she marries rather than by the plot. This novel is romantic without being a romance novel as such. Monica Dickens was Charles Dickens’s great-granddaughter, and she certainly inherited his ability to tell a tale.

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Day 1004: Half-Blood Blues

Cover for Half-Blood BluesIn 1939 Paris after the German occupation, Sid Griffiths and the members of the Hot Time Swinger’s American Band have just finished cutting a record when Hiero Falk, German but black, is picked up by the Gestapo and never seen again. In 1992, Falk, now considered a jazz legend on the basis of that one recording of the “Half-Blood Blues,” is being honored with the opening of a documentary in Berlin. Sid quit playing years ago, but Chip Jones, another member of the band, talks him into attending.

Chip has been Sid’s frenemy since childhood. He’s a great musician, but he’s also a liar. When he and Sid get up at the opening to talk about Hiero, Chip blindsides Sid with terrible lies about him and Hiero to the audience. The problem is, Sid did do something shameful to Hiero, just not what Chip accuses him of.

After the presentation, Chip talks the reluctant Sid into traveling to Poland. He has found out Hiero is alive and has even corresponded with him. As the two travel by bus into Poland, Sid thinks back to the events of 1939.

This novel is written in African-American vernacular that sounds fairly modern, even for the part from World War II. It takes a little getting used to, although I am not sure if it is accurate for the time. Certainly, the novel effective re-creates the feeling of the time and place, and the precarious existence of these young musicians.

This novel was on both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize lists. It was another book that I may not have chosen on my own but that I enjoyed reading.

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Day 984: A Tale for the Time Being

Cover for A Tale for the Time BeingMonths after the Japanese tsunami, Ruth, of Japanese descent, finds a barnacle-covered package on the beach of the island in British Columbia where she lives. The package contains a Hello Kitty box with the diary of a young Japanese girl.

Ruth gets involved in reading this diary. The girl, Nao, tells a difficult story of having been raised in Sunnyvale, California, until her father lost his job at a technology company. The family was forced to return to Japan, where her father has been unable to find work and is suicidal. Nao, seen as an outsider by her classmates, is viciously bullied. Nao, too, is considering suicide.

The only bright spot in the girl’s life seems to be Jiko, her 104-year-old great grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun. Jiko has taught Nao a few of the fundamentals of Zen Buddhism, which help support her. Nao has stated an intention of writing about Jiko’s life, but she actually writes about whatever occurs to her, including the story of her uncle, a World War II kamikaze pilot.

This story is punctuated with scenes from Ruth’s quiet life on a small island with her husband Oliver, a biologist. Both stories dip into philosophy, Buddhist beliefs, and even a little magical realism. Ruth and Oliver become involved in Nao’s story and wonder if she committed suicide, if she survived the tsunami, and where she is.

At first I resisted this novel a bit. I probably wouldn’t have read it if it was not on my Man Booker Prize list. I wasn’t completely convinced by Nao’s voice, and I felt that the story was a way to sneak in lessons about Buddhist teachings. Eventually, though, I got sucked in and became just as interested in Nao’s fate as Ruth was.

However, in tackling its many subjects—suicide, bullying, the trash in the ocean, the nature of time, the tsunami, World War II, just to name a few—I sometimes felt this novel was all over the place. It is entertaining but kind of mind boggling.

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Day 949: Traitor’s Purse

Cover for Traitor's PurseA man awakens in a hospital to realize that he remembers nothing about who he is or what has happened to him. Then he overhears a nurse and policeman talking. Someone has killed a policeman. Thinking they are talking about him, he escapes in the outfit of a fireman.

We soon learn that the escaping man is Albert Campion. Although he is picked up outside the hospital by his fiancée Amanda, he soon realizes that something important is happening and everyone is looking to him for instruction. He must stop something from happening, but he doesn’t know what.

This mystery, which is set during World War II, has to do with a plot to destroy the foundations of the country. All Campion knows is that it involves the mysterious Institute of Bridge, an organization called the Masters, and the number 15.

In this novel, we understand a little more about Campion’s thinking, precisely because he’s not behaving in character. I believe he is normally supposed to be somewhat inscrutable, because he’s frequently described as “wooden-faced.” Because of the unique situation of the novel, it is truly suspenseful.

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Day 937: Suite Française

Cover for Suite FrancaiseI tried to read Suite Française when it first came out in the early 2000’s, but I was completely turned off by its characters, whom I found petty and vicious. But that’s exactly the point, I find, picking up the book again because of a book club. Although a well-known writer who had lived in France for half her life, Némirovsky was denied French citizenship presumably because she was Jewish. She was inspired to write the novel because of the behavior she witnessed during the evacuation of Paris in World War II. She never finished this ambitious novel because she was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 by the French government and died there a month later.

Suite Française consists of the first two parts of what was to be a five-part novel. “Storm in June” follows various Parisians as they evacuate Paris with the rumor of the German advance. They have left it very late, but even so, Mrs. Péricard delays, waiting for her linen to be returned from the launderer. Later, she scours a small village trying to find sweets to refill her supply that she has passed out to starving fellow evacuees, but when she learns that everyone is out of everything, she snatches back some of her treats to save them for her family. Even later, in a rush to catch a train to safety, she actually forgets her ailing father-in-law, who dies alone in a hospice.

Charles Langelet abandons Paris in his car filled with his collection of porcelain. When he runs out of gas, he persuades a young couple that they can rest and he will watch their car, which he steals.

Gabriel Corte is a famous writer who evacuates with his mistress, Florence. Throughout the chaos, he behaves with extreme selfishness and expects special treatment.

The only sympathetic characters are the Michauds, who work in a bank. They have been instructed by their boss, Corbin, to meet him with their things in front of the bank, where employees who are needed in Tours can share rides. He himself has promised a ride to the Michauds, but when they get to his car, his mistress is there with her dog, even though he has already told her he can’t take her. After an argument, the Michauds are abandoned, with no recourse except to walk to Tours. All the while, they are worried about their son Jean-Marie, a soldier at the front. When they are forced to return to Paris because the road to Tours is closed, Corbin fires them.

The spiteful, satiric tone of “Storm in June” subsides a bit for “Dolce.” This volume examines the fate of two families in the village and countryside nearby where many of the evacuees ended up stranded before they returned to Paris. It is now months later.

One family is the Sabaries, the country folk who tended Jean-Marie when he was wounded. Although their foster daughter Madeleine fell in love with Jean-Marie, she has married the son of the family, Benoît, and has had a baby. A young German officer has been billeted on the family and pays attention to her. Although she is afraid of the German, Benoît is jealous.

In the village, Lucile Angellier is shut up in the dark house with her mother-in-law, who dislikes her. (The Angelliers briefly took in the Péricard family during the evacuation.) Lucile was pushed into her marriage by her father and found out soon afterwards that her husband has a mistress. In her loneliness, she becomes attracted to the German lieutenant billeted in their house.

My strongest reaction was to the first book, which I found a bit shocking. Despite a review comment on the back of the book about its “indictment of French manners and morals,” I wasn’t sure if the social commentary was meant to be more general or specifically against the French. According to Némirovsky’s own notes, it was against the French.

As to the second book, it seemed as if it was intended to build toward ramifications later in the novel, which, of course, was never finished.

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Day 906: Enchanted Islands

Cover for Enchanted IslandsEnchanted Islands is a novel based on the lives of Frances and Ainsley Conway, an American couple who lived on the Galapagos Islands in the late 1930’s and the 40’s. Although based on two memoirs written by Frances Conway, Amend has expanded the novel to cover most of Frances’s life and her friendship with Rosalie Mendel, all presumably fictional.

This book is a rather odd one. It begins with Frances and Rosalie in their old age and then returns in time to their childhood in Wisconsin. It spends some time there, following them until Frances’s late teens, when she discovers Rosalie with her own boyfriend and flees. Then it glosses over the next 20 years until Frances meets Rosalie again in California and later marries Ainsley. After that, Frances and Ainsley go on a spying mission for the Navy, something Frances is never able to tell her friends about.

The result creates a sort of divided effect. First, sections of the novel are either full of Rosalie or have no Rosalie, which made me wonder, why even bother with her? Why not just write about Galapagos? The other parts seem to belong to a different novel.

Then there is Galapagos, which Amend simplifies to the island Floreana when actually the Conways lived on three different islands. The existence there seems harsh, bleak, and lonely. There is little description of scenery or anything else to make us understand why, according to Amend, they came to love it. In fact, there is very little going on there, even including the spying.

I felt a distance from all these characters. Although we learn a lot about Frances, we don’t ever feel as if we understand her, and Ainsley is a sort of charming enigma. Most of the time, we don’t even like Rosalie.

link to NetgalleySo, a middling reaction to this novel. I was interested enough to finish it, but only mildly interested. I thought there was no sense of place in any of the settings. The characters didn’t seem like real people. The cover of the novel is lovely, but the islands seemed in no way enchanting. Did Amend bother to visit them, or is she just not good at description? Or are they not lovely?

Amend comments that she is a novelist first and only a mediocre historian. That remark irritated me, because I think that’s what’s wrong with with many historical novels. If authors aren’t willing to do the research to bring a time and place to life, maybe they should stick to contemporary fiction.

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