Day 1134: Manhattan Beach

Cover for Manhattan BeachI have enjoyed everything that Jennifer Egan has written and thought that A Visit from the Goon Squad was one of the best books I read that year. So, when Netgalley offered Manhattan Beach, I was pleased. Egan’s other work has been, in one way or another, experimental, but Manhattan Beach is a straightforward historical novel, to my surprise.

Anna Kerrigan is a young girl at the start of the novel in 1930’s New York. Her father, Eddie, works as a bagman for the longshoreman’s union and takes her with him on his rounds. But shortly after the start of the novel, he begins leaving her home. He does this after he takes a new job working for a gangster, Mr. Styles. Although Anna interprets this as rejection, it is to keep her safe.

Eddie does not enjoy his home life. Although he loves his wife, they have a second daughter, Lydia, who is severely handicapped. Her presence makes him feel uncomfortable, and Agnes is always trying to force him to show affection to Lydia.

Then Eddie disappears without a trace. Anna begins working to help support the family. Eventually, the story splits into two. In one, Anna becomes involved with Mr. Styles, whom she remembers visiting as a child with Eddie, and works her way into the man’s world of marine diving as part of the war effort. In the other story, we find out what happened to Eddie.

For most of this novel, I wondered where it was going. Much of it centers around Anna, Eddie, and Mr. Styles. But first it seems to wander in focus from the New York underworld to the war effort and diving to Eddie’s experiences during World War II. Although the bulk of the novel is set during the war, there is very little feeling for the period.

link to NetgalleyOverall, I was a little disappointed in Manhattan Beach. It was well written, but Egan’s previous novels sparkled with originality. Egan makes it clear in the acknowledgements that she wanted to write about New York during the period, but the period feel is just not there. She is interested in the Naval Yard, where Anna works, but I didn’t really get an idea of what it was like.

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Day 1121: Salt to the Sea

Cover for Salt to the SeaAt the end of World War II, three teenagers are among the refugees fleeing through East Prussia from the Russians. Joanna is a Lithuanian nurse who was patriated into Germany. Emilia is a young Polish girl with no papers. Florian is a Prussian on a mission.

Salt to the Sea follows these three on their flight, as well as Alfred, a Nazi sailor helping ready the Wilhelm Gustloff for its load of refugees. The novel switches among the points of view of these narrators in brief chapters.

And this is one of its fundamental problems. The novel jumps back and forth between narrators, allowing us to really know no one. To add further to that distancing, most other characters are referred to only by their professions or other attributes, even fairly important ones such as the old shoemaker travelling with the group. The result is that we don’t really care about any of the characters.

Further, this novel shares an attribute with much other young adult fiction that I dislike. It is told in first person—in this case four first persons—which is not necessarily a problem. But except for Alfred’s, the narratives are indistinguishable in style and written in short, choppy sentences with simple structure, as if the assumption is made that young adults have no complex thoughts. To make things worse, some of the metaphorical language is excruciating. Witness the following:

And for some reason those words are now caught, like a hair, in the drain of my mind.

Of course, this sentence is from the abhorrent Alfred, but similar excrescences come from the other narratives.

Finally, the chopped up narrative style so slows down the action at the end of the book that, combined with the distance we feel from the characters, it makes the climax of the novel actually boring. And really (spoiler), when a torpedo hits the ship, the only description Sepetys can think of is “Bang!” repeated four times?

The evacuation of the refugees and the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff make an important story, but sadly Sepetys is not the writer to tell it.

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Day 1119: Northbridge Rectory

Cover for Northbridge RectoryEclipse day! We are not in the path of totality here,
but we are at about 97%. We thought about driving down into Oregon, but since the state is supposed to have more than a million extra people coming for the eclipse, we decided to stay home. I hope you have a nice view!

* * *

Northbridge Rectory is another of Angela Thirkell’s delightful Barsetshire books. I have been making no effort to read them in order, and this one is set during World War II.

The Villarses moved to Barsetshire only a year ago when Mr. Villars was appointed Rector. Mr. Villars formerly had a career as a headmaster of a boys’ school, and Mrs. Villars feels somewhat inadequate in her new role as rector’s wife.

The Villarses expected the rectory to receive its quota of refugees from London, but instead eight officers of the Barsetshire regiment have been quartered there. The Villarses particularly enjoy the company of Mr. Holden, who is managing some of his work as a publisher’s associate along with his military duties. Mr. Holden has become attached to Mrs. Villars and is constantly wearing her out by telling her she looks tired.

Although Northbridge Rectory is mostly from Mrs. Villars’s point of view, it also deals with two poverty-stricken scholars who share a house. Mr. Downing is a middle-aged man working on an abstruse book about medieval Provençal literature. His hostess, Miss Pemberton, is an older lady working on a monograph about the work of an Italian Renaissance artist. Miss Pemberton spends a lot of time keeping spinsters away from Mr. Downing. Mr. Downing, however, soon begins to feel very comfortable visiting the widowed Mrs. Turner and her bouncing teenage nieces.

Wartime brings everyone among unaccustomed people and activities, as when a watch from the church tower is proposed to look for parachutists. The Villarses spend an excruciating weekend entertaining an unexpected guest who will not stop talking, Mrs. Spender, the wife of Major Spender. Other entertaining characters include the couple of spinsters who so loved living in France that they throw mispronounced and misused French into every conversation.

Thirkell’s books are always funny, with a gentle humor that pokes fun without making anyone entirely unlikable. She has an unusual style of narration that breaks out to address readers directly, as if she is having a private conversation with us, usually just before a zinger.

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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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