Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Great Reads for September 2011

by Julia Kuttner

Dreams of Joy, by Lisa See

Dreams of joy

It has been a great pleasure to read the long-awaited sequel to ‘Shanghai Girls’, Lisa See’s epic novel of 1930’s China, detailing the appalling betrayal of Pearl and May Chin’s father as he sells them into marriage to two brothers, peasants who live in ‘The Gold Mountain’, America, so that he can pay his gambling debts.  The sisters’ escape from Shanghai and the attacking Japanese Army produces lasting scars and horrific memories  - and a baby girl to May, the result of a passionate affair with an artist both women love:  there is much sorrow to overcome before the girls can reconstruct their lives in in Los Angeles with their new husbands;  they are the keepers of many secrets which they expect to stay hidden -  until 1955, when terrible and tragic events expose everything to Joy, the child born of war and privation, irretrievably  fracturing the relationship the sisters have as aunt and mother to her, their beloved.
In vengeful retaliation and bravado, Joy steals her college fund and flies to China to search for her biological father, only to eventually discover that the Chinese Peoples’ Republic is a vastly different beast from that depicted by her ardent socialist-leaning fellow  college students.  Finding her father proves to be relatively easy ;  he has become an artist famous for his portraits of Mao Tse Tung and posters of the Chinese people celebrating their glorious revolution, but she is mystified that he has been ordered to spend six months in a remote country collective,  giving art lessons to the villagers – what kind of work is this for a man of his repute?  It takes a long time and many adverse experiences for Joy to lose her naivete, and when Mao starts his mighty agricultural experiment, his ‘Great Leap Forward’, which results in the eventual starvation and death of millions, her disillusionment is complete.  Lisa See has carefully and exhaustively researched this terrible time;  her characters endure tragedy and horrors barely imaginable, based on authentic accounts by people who were real-life sufferers of Mao’s terrible failure;  who managed to survive to tell their dreadful stories and it is a tribute to her literary skill that the reader hangs on to every word until the story ends.  One also hopes that Ms See doesn’t abandon her singular characters:  The novel’s conclusion is still in the 50’s, which means that there are oodles of time yet left for a third book, still time for more life experiences for the brave, tenacious Chin women and their loved ones.  Fingers crossed!

THE PARIS WIFE, by Paula McLain

 20th century literary lion Ernest Hemingway had four wives.  This is a story of his first, ‘the Paris wife’, Hadley Richardson, eight years his senior, introverted and shy when they first met in Chicago, and perfectly ready to be swept off her feet by Hemingway’s handsome looks, fierce intelligence, and his utter conviction that he would make a great career as a writer.   Ms McLain paints a compelling portrait of their life and times, well-researched and empathetic to Hadley’s unenviable role as The Wife, caregiver, helpmeet, organizer and factotum to her man’s Great and God-Given Talent, and humble admirer of her husband’s many friends , of solid literary repute themselves:  Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein (and her own wife and helpmeet, Alice B. Toklas), Ezra Pound and his ménage a trois, Ford Madox Ford, Archibald MacLeish and their respective wives and mistresses – all portrayed against a background of Paris in the ‘20’s;  damaged and frenetic after the war but still a city of endlessly exciting literary and artistic possibilities. 
Narrated in the first-person by Hadley in beautifully lucid sentences, she recounts with a singular lack of self-pity all the dramas of her 6-year marriage to Ernest:   the birth of a beloved son;  the great highs and terrible lows of life with a man who was everyone’s friend, loyal, true, generous and staunch – until he wasn’t;  the agonizing inadequacy and sorrow she was forced to endure as far more attractive women than she doggedly pursued her husband, who stayed faithful – until he didn’t.  Hemingway’s shameful treatment of his friends (portraying them cruelly as thinly-veiled characters in his books was the least of his sins) is well documented;  his adultery with Hadley’s good friend Pauline Pfeifer, who was to become his second wife, was at first suggested by him to Hadley as perhaps a situation that could be workable – his very own ménage-a-trois?  After all, so many of their friends had similar arrangements which seemed to be successful;  couldn’t they give it a try?  Such is the ability of Ms. McLain to recreate the desperation and agony in Hadley’s own voice that the reader is not disappointed in her for attempting to live in a situation that was utterly repugnant to her, but to give her top marks for trying, and to applaud her for finding the courage to abandon Ernest, selfish bastard extraordinaire, and the woman determined to become his muse.
Hadley must also have the last word, a classic summation of their lives in the Twenties :  ‘We called Paris the great good place then, and it was.  We invented it after all.  We made it with our longing and cigarettes and Rhum St. James;  we made it with smoke, and smart and savage conversation and we dared anyone to say it wasn’t ours.  Together we made everything and then we busted it apart again’. A  Five star story.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

When I first read the publisher’s blurb for this book I felt that I was about to begin a highly improbable ‘Perils of Pauline’-type novel;  in fact, trying to summarise Ms. Patchett’s story WITHOUT straining the reader’s credulity is a major task, but such is Ann Patchett’s literary skill that she can present  fantastic and impossible situations with utter conviction.  It’s fair to say that any dedicated reader will be hooked from the first page.
Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist for a big Minnesota drug conglomerate is sent to the Amazon by her CEO (also her lover) when her colleague and friend, Anders Eckman -  dispatched first to check on company financed ground-breaking medical research by formidable and reclusive scientist Annick Swenson, dies suddenly of a fever:  his wife wants his body (to prove that he is really dead – she can’t believe it) and the company wants proof that their investment is proceeding according to plan.  Marina’s trip to Brazil and the jungle is predictably hellish, and she has an added burden:  the formidable Dr. Swenson was her professor and mentor when she was a student majoring in obstetrics 12 years before, until a terrible mistake and its subsequent repercussions drove her into the safety of chemical research.   Marina is naturally reluctant to meet Dr. Swenson again, to be reminded of the past and its terrible sorrow;  she can hardly wait to complete the tasks assigned, collect Anders’ ‘few effects’ (according to Dr. Swenson’s terse announcement of his death), and bring them home to his widow.  Needless to say, nothing turns out to be as it seems;  complications arise at every turn and a lot of water flows down the Amazon before Marina can  return to Minnesota, irrevocably changed thanks to, or in spite of her experiences.
 This is not the first time Ms. Patchett has written of South America and its fatal beauty;  the lyrical  ‘Bel Canto’ (2001) was first, and once again she has created memorable characters that  react plausibly and naturally to unnatural circumstances.  Dr. Swenson commands the reader’s attention from the first time she appears ;  ruthless, terrible, relentlessly honest, and utterly selfless in her devotion to science – and humanity.  Ann Patchett has done it again;  she has pulled another rabbit out of her literary hat, enthralling us with big ideas, big adventure and big characters.  Which makes this book a BIG success.

Started Early, took my Dog, by Kate Atkinson

 Jackson Brodie is a solitary man;  an ex-policeman, an ex-paratrooper -  and  he doesn’t have a very good record at personal relationships either, being the ex-husband and ex-boyfriend to several women, one of whom fleeced him for every penny.  At the start of this novel, Kate Atkinson’s 4thfeaturing his misadventures, he’s half inclined to get ‘I don’t understand’ tattooed on his forehead:  how could his life be so mismanaged – by himself – without him even trying?  He is now reduced to tooling round the English Midlands, playing at being a private detective,  half-heartedly pursuing an adopted New Zealand woman’s request to ‘find out where she came from’, a task that leads him into predictably dangerous and murky waters, and the unveiling of a tragic murder and police cover-up lasting 35 years .  Sounds like the usual familiar stuff, doesn’t it – except that Ms Atkinson is not just a crime novelist per se; she is superb at constructing plots that are straight out of left-field:  the reader doesn’t know what hits them until it arrives with a swipe across the head.  Her characters are always beautifully observed and true, and her dialogue and description is a delight:  in spite of the disturbing elements of the story, there is a much-needed element of wry humour – just what the reader needs to combat the murder, mayhem and squalor of society’s sub-strata.  It’s a rough old world out there, especially for the children – and the dog(!) - in this story, but fortunately for them, Jackson Brodie, their unlikely rescuer, turns up once again to solve the case and save the day with the help of some great supporting players.  A library member who read this before me wrote on the comments sheet:  ‘riveting’.  That sums it up beautifully.    

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