Monday, January 15, 2018

Birdcage Walk

Title:  Birdcage Walk
Author:  Helen Dunmore
Publication Information:  Atlantic Monthly Press. 2017. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0802127142 / 978-0802127143

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "If my friends hadn't decided that I should have a dog I would never have opened the gate and gone into the graveyard."

Favorite Quote:  "I saw clearly now that it was  not so easy to step out of the life which held us. No matter how far we went, we would take with us not only our selves but all the ghosts of our lives."

British history found itself in tumultuous times in the 1790s. The economy, particularly the building industry was booming. Builders overextended themselves, hoping for big profits from the sale of luxury homes in Bristol. The coming of war and the political divisions that led to that caused the booming industry to collapse and left many a builder in ruins.

This is the historical setting of Birdcage Walk. The main characters portray a piece of this historical puzzle. Lizzie Fawkes is a married woman who struggles against the confines of that marriage. Her parents, particularly her mother, are supporters of the French revolution and considered radicals. Her husband John Diner Tredevant is an up and coming builder who has invested everything he is into a luxury housing project. The revolution and war threaten everything he seeks to achieve.  Lizzie finds herself between the two viewpoints and two loyalties.

In addition to the historical perspective, the book has an even darker, more personal side. John Diner Tredevant wants control, over his business, his home, and particularly his wife. He sees it as her duty to obey. This control gradually takes on a darker and darker tone, isolating Lizzie. In that respect, this story could be set anywhere and in virtually any context.

The title Birdcage Walk refers to both the historical and personal aspects of this story.  Figuratively, the title conjures up images of Lizzie Fawkes caught in a controlling, abusive marriage; she is indeed a bird in a cage. Literally, Birdcage Walk is a graveyard of the St Andrews church in Clifton village in Bristol, England. The graveyard features ornate tombstones and a shaded tree-tunnel. To this day, it is listed as a tourist attraction to be visited in Clifton.

The historical background in this case provides some of the motivation for John Tredevant's actions. Otherwise, this is very much the story of a marriage. The events of the Revolution are removed from their impact on Lizzie. She is torn between the opposing views of her mother and her husband. Her mother's idealism and her husband's business mindedness represent a reaction to the history; Lizzie's actions are more a reaction to her personal situation than the history. Thus, the book does focus more on the domestic and marital concerns that Lizzie navigates on a day to day basis. The book description envisions "an unsettling and brilliantly tense drama of public and private violence, resistance and terror." The details are not quite that memorable or that dramatic.

The book begins with a the discovery of a grave and a curiosity as to its history. The book never does wind its way back to the discoverer, but no matter. In the afterword, the author explains that the book is in part about that which we leave behind. "I wanted to write about people whose voices have not echoed through time and whose struggles and passions have been hidden from history." This message takes on an added significance because this book is now her last published work. Ms. Dunmore sadly passed away in June, 2017, at the age of sixty four. The legacy of her work lives on.


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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Revolution of Marina M

Title:  The Revolution of Marina M
Author:  Janet Finch
Publication Information:  Little Brown and Company. 2017. 816 pages.
ISBN:  0316022063 / 978-0316022064

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Rocking on the razor-musseled bay, lulled by the sleepy toll of buoy bells, the music of riggings, the eloquent stanzas of waves, I wait for news form the sea."

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes just living is heroism."

As you might suspect from the title, this book is about the young woman Marina in the context of an actual revolution - the Russian Revolution. The background setup of the main character and the historical framework is my reason for choosing the book. Marina is the daughter of a well-to-do Russian family. Her father is involved with the powers who rule, and Marina gets involved with the ideology of the revolution. She is also a teenager, sixteen, on the cusp of defining her own ideas independently from those of her family. This framework sets up an interesting perspective on the history.

Sadly, that is not the story I read. For me, Marina ends up neither a likable nor a sympathetic character. Her father describes her as follows, "For someone who claims to be so sensitive to the plight of the common man, you're embarrassingly self-involved." A friend describes her actions as, "bourgeois baby wants to play the proletarian." Both are said in anger, but unfortunately both capture the image of Marina that comes through.

To make matters worse, big parts of the book center on Marina's sex life with multiple partners - consensual and forced. Mind you, she is portrayed as sixteen years old at the beginning of the book. In her own words, "I certainly liked being handled by men. Sex, the life of the senses, it was very strong in my nature." The descriptions are unfortunately also at times graphic and at times violent. This does make the book dark and disturbing in a way that has nothing to do with the history it is setting out to bring to life. This aspect of the book is to me completely unexpected. Perhaps the "revolution" in the title is meant to a sexual one not just a literal one. I think not. Regardless, this type of reading is not for me, especially not when it features a sixteen year old.

The theme of Marina's relationship with her father recurs throughout the book. Sadly, he and most of the other characters in the are presented only from Marina's point of view and captured in the wide sea of events and characters the book attempts to capture. None of them become real. Consequently, Marina's feelings (anger? hate? disappointment? sadness?) towards him or any of the other characters don't feel genuine.

The perspective on the historical setting is clouded by these characteristics being ascribed to Marina. The book clearly shows that research was done into the Russian revolution. However, then it appears that it was attempted to fit every aspect into Marina's story. Families split apart, students, protests, military, war, smuggling, violence, scientists, communal living, spiritual leaders. The list goes on and on. At over eight hundred pages, a lot is encompassed into this story. In this case, more is definitely not better. After a while, it becomes some historical tidbit superimposed onto the characters in the book and into Marina's sex life. Once again, not for me.

After making it through all that, the book has an abrupt end with no real closure. Come to find out, this book is not only long but also not complete. A sequel is planned. Unfortunately, this is not a story I care to continue.


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Friday, January 5, 2018

The End We Start From

Title:  The End We Start From
Author:  Megan Hunter
Publication Information:  Grove Press. 2017. 170 pages.
ISBN:  0802126898 / 978-0802126894

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I am hours from giving birth, from the even I thought would never happen to me, and R has gone up a mountain."

Favorite Quote:  "There are so many different kinds of quiet, and only one word for them."

The "end" with which this book begins is an undefined cataclysmic, apocalyptic flood in and around London. It destroys in its path and forces people to become refugees from their homes. People flee, both to escape and to seek shelter and safety. Unfortunately, neither are easily found. People die; families are separated; life as people know it is left behind.

The "start" of this book is the birth of a child. Even in the face of death, destruction, and loss, a mother delights in her child and would do all she can to protect the child. A child's innocence sees and feels that love, despite the dire circumstances the family finds itself in.

The focus of the story is clearly on the "start". This is a book about motherhood and about the physical and emotional aspects of of the mother-child relationship. It is about the wonders and the fears of motherhood. The fear of bringing an infant in such a hostile environment. The physical toll of mothering. The amazing creature that a baby is. The joy at every milestone.

The apocalyptic flood, its causes, or its eventual resolution are not developed within the book. Is the flood literal? Is it an isolated natural disaster? Is it a thought to the changes of global warming? Is the disaster a metaphorical nod to the man-made humanitarian and refugee crises around the world currently? The questions are never answered. As a reader, I want answers, but, at the same time, the questions leave it up to me the reader. What do I bring to the book, and how do I choose to interpret it?

This "open to interpretation" approach is also magnified by the fact that the characters are given no names and no real physical descriptions. They are referenced by initials. The narrator is the mother. The baby is Z. The father is R. People they meet along the way include O and C. Again, as a reader, I want characterization and names. The use of initials is at times a grating note in the book especially since names come up often in the first-person narrative style of writing. It also prevents a more personal connection for me because a name goes a long way towards that connection. However, again, it leaves the images up to the reader. Who do you see in the characters?

At under 200 pages, this book is brief, very brief. The short, choppy writing style serves to enhance that feeling. At time, this book feels more like poetry than prose.

The writing style, the initials, and the lack of exposition means that this book takes work to follow and interpret. At times, it's too much, and the book feels like it's trying too hard to be original and philosophical. At times, it works. I am left somewhere in between. I will remember it, but as a book that I am unsure about. As it is a debut novel, I will look for more of Megan Hunter's work to see what direction she pursues next.


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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

After the Fire

Title:  After the Fire
Author:  Henning Mankell (author). Marlaine Delray (translator)
Publication Information:  Vintage. 2017. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0525435085 / 978-0525435082

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "My house burned down on an autumn night almost a year ago."

Favorite Quote:  "The most important memories are preserved in my mind. I can't weep over the fact that everything is gone. I have to decide what to do. I have no intention of allowing the fire to steal my life."

This is the first of the Henning Mankell's works that I have read. He is perhaps best known for his Kurt Wallander msytery series. Sadly, this book is also the last work he published before his death. The afterword of this book is dated March 2015. He died in October 2015.

After the Fire is the second book by Henning Mankell centered around the character of Fredrik Welin. As the beginning of this book states, it is "a freestanding continuation of Italian Shoes, which was first published in 2006. This narrative takes place eight years later." The freestanding part works on the surface for this book can stand alone. The theme of shoes - Wellingtons, in this case - does run through the book, and, I understand, the characters from the first book carry forward into this one as well. So, below the surface, perhaps much remains undiscovered not having read the first book.

Regardless, this book lends itself to looking at its pieces. First, the main character. Fredrik Welin is a seventy-year physician, although he has long since given up surgery. He is no longer an actively practicing physician at all; the back story is that a dire mistake and injury to a patient led him to quit his profession. Now, he lives on an island in the Stockholm archipelago; he lives alone. His only regular interaction is with Jansson, the mailman, handyman, and closest thing to a friend that Fredrik has. Fredrik's character and his meditations on his life are in essence the theme of the book.

Second, the plot. Fredrik's house burns down, taking with it most of what he owns. The police are in the picture because after all, a fire just doesn't start. The fire also forces Fredrik out of his isolation and into contact with the police, a journalist, and his recently discovered, adult daughter. Fredrik's emerging out of isolation and the investigation into the cause of the fire become the plot of the book.

Third, the setting. Fredrik's island is in the Stockholm architecture. His house was the main structure on the island; now the burned shell remains. The nearest town, if it can be called that, is small. The writing conjures up a picture of damp, cold, and isolation. Yet, at the same time, I want to visit and see this place for myself. It draws you in.

The picture the author manages to draw of the setting is the most memorable part of the book. The introspective main character does not grab me as much as I thought it would. Maybe, something is lacking not having the background of the first book. Maybe, Fredrik's musings get intermingled with the more prosaic investigation into the fire. Maybe, the movement through the present and his memories of the past leaves me as a reader a little scattered. Maybe, the very human, very criminal solution to the mystery of the fire impedes the philosophical bent of the trip through memories. Maybe, the pull away from the main setting of Fredrik's island breaks the spell of the story. Maybe for all these reasons, the setting and Fredrik's search for his Wellingtons are what I take away from this book.


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