Day 1184: The Garden of Evening Mists

Cover for The Garden of Evening MistsBest of Five!
Yun Ling Teoh, a Malayan federal judge of Chinese descent, has decided to retire early. She has been diagnosed with a neurological ailment that will cause more and more frequent episodes of aphasia and will eventually destroy her language abilities. She decides to return to Yugiri, a Japanese garden in Malaya that she inherited from its creator, Aritomo.

On the advice of her friend Frederik, the owner of a nearby tea plantation, Yun Ling decides to record her memories. She begins in 1951, when she went to Aritomo to ask him to design a garden in memory of her sister, Yun Hong, who died in a Japanese labor camp during World War II. Yun Ling also was in the camp, and her hatred of the Japanese makes it difficult for her to ask for Aritomo’s help. But her sister loved Japanese gardens.

Aritomo refuses her request but makes her a different offer. If she will take on the job of apprentice, he will teach her enough to design her own garden. She decides to accept the offer, having quit her job as prosecutor.

It is a difficult time in Malaya. No sooner did the war end than the government began fighting Communist guerillas, who were attempted to take over the country. And Akitomo has his secrets. He came to Malaya before the war, having resigned as the Japanese emperor’s gardener, but Yun Ling occasionally hears that he played a role for Japan during the war. He had some kind of influence, because he saved his neighbors from the Japanese labor camps. Yun Ling, we find, has her own secrets.

The Garden of Evening Mists is the best kind of historical fiction, immersing me in its time and place while informing me of events I was formerly unaware of. I found it deeply interesting and affecting. The descriptions are delicate and evocative, and the characters feel real yet mysterious. This novel was part of both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize projects, as well as the winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize. It is a powerful novel.

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Day 1181: The Zone of Interest

Cover for The Zone of InterestIn Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest, the Zone is a Nazi factory and concentration camp in Poland. Interestingly, Amis makes this setting a source of some very black humor.

The novel is written from the points of view of several characters, mostly Nazis, but it is mainly from that of Thomsen, an officer in charge of production at the rubber factory. He is a womanizer, but he begins to have feelings for Hannah Doll, the commandant’s wife.

Doll himself is a vile human being. He has his rival for Hannah imprisoned and uses threats against inmates’ relatives to force them to do things.

In fact, most of the characters are vile. And that’s the difficulty with this novel. First, is the Holocaust fodder for humor? I’m not sure it is in general, but it isn’t for me. Also, even though Thomsen is the least criminal of the characters because he’s working subtly against the war effort, these are people busily explaining away their own terrible actions.

Amis’s goal, I think, is to give some insight into the behavior of these people. Whether you want to read a novel on this subject probably depends on whether you’re interested in that insight. It made me a little queasy. This is one of the books I read for my Walter Scott Prize project that I didn’t really enjoy.

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Day 1179: In the Wolf’s Mouth

Cover for In the Wolf's MouthAnother book for my Walter Scott Prize project, In the Wolf’s Mouth is very different from the last novel I read by Adam Foulds. It is about the incompetent “liberation” of Sicily by the Allies during World War II, from the point of view of two characters. Will is a British field security officer who is ambitious to accomplish something. Ray is an Italian-American soldier who gets accidentally detached from his unit.

Although the plot of this novel is disjointed, it hinges upon the use by the American army of Sicilian exiles in its capture of Sicily. Unfortunately, some of these exiles are mafioso who fled the island 20 years before under threat from the Fascists. Ciró Albanese is one of these men, and under the auspices of the American army, he begins taking charge of his old activities. He considers Angilú one of his enemies, as the ex-shepherd took over his job and his house after he was kicked out. He also wants his wife back, even though she has remarried after thinking him dead. Eventually, Will gets wind of his activities.

Although this story is coherent enough, Ray’s story has very little to do with it. His is one of a soldier suffering from too much exposure to violence. His story is loosely connected by place and a link to the Princess, daughter of Angilú’s employer. This looseness gives the novel a disjointed feeling. After enduring a certain amount of tension through the problems of Angilú, we end with a fizzle, with Ray.

Finally, none of the characters are very knowable. We only really see one or two facets of their personalities. The sense of place depends on a few descriptions and a general aura of confusion. Although the novel kept my interest, I felt frustrated by it.

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Day 1173: Atonement

Cover for AtonementBest Book of Five!
Ian McEwan is a master at turning everything you think you know about a novel on its head, and he does that effectively in Atonement. This novel is a reread for me, the first one by McEwan I ever read, and I found it breathtaking. It is just as enjoyable when you know its secrets.

On a hot summer day in 1935, Briony Tallis commits a terrible crime. At thirteen, she is an imaginative but naive girl, a budding novelist. She misunderstands some interactions she witnesses between her older sister, Cecilia, and Cecilia’s childhood friend, Robbie, and this misunderstanding provokes her to tell a dreadful lie that ruins lives.

Five year later, Briony is a nurse at the start of World War II. She is trying to get published as a writer, but she is also concerned to atone for the lives she ruined.

This novel draws you in to the hot summer day and carries you along. It is beautifully written, and it shows great insight into the mind of the romantic, self-important child that Briony was. I can’t say much more about this novel without giving it away to the few of you who haven’t read it or seen the movie, but I believe it to be a postmodern classic. In short, this is a great book. It is intelligent, with ideas to ponder but with a narrative that just sweeps you along.

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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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