Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Visible Empire

Title:  Visible Empire
Author:  Hannah Pittard
Publication Information:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2018. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0544748069 / 978-0544748064

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In the first few hours, confusion."

Favorite Quote:  "I want to tell you that I understand how big the heart is, how capacious an organ. There's so much room inside. I see that now."

What began as a delightful month-long tour of European art for 106 individuals associated with the Atlanta Art Association ended in disaster. In June 1962, their Air France flight home to Atlanta crashed on take-off from Paris. Two flight attendants survived. The remaining crew and 122 passengers, including the 106 from Atlanta, perished.

Visible Empire picks up on this historical event and creates a fictionalized story of the impact of the crash on the city of Atlanta and its residents. This is not a history I knew. So, I did some research on the plane crash and surrounding events. This, in fact, is one of my favorite things about historical fiction; it often sends me reading the actual history. The fiction and stories are interesting, but I never make the mistake of taking it for the actual history.

In this book, however, the history - of the crash, of the Civil Rights Movement, of life in the South, and of the 1960s is not the center of this story but rather just a backdrop. The book narrates its story - or really what seems a collection of stories - through a varied set of characters. The chapters move back and forth through the different perspectives and essentially different narratives. The issue for me becomes that there are simply too many characters and, hence, too many different threads of this story. It becomes challenging not only to remember the characters and relationship but all the narrative related to each. The characters seem at times tangentially connected. All of this seems to lead to the fact that the characters seem to not develop through the story. Because of the breadth of the narrative, I seem to miss the depth.

Also, I seem to miss the story of the crash. That is the back drop, but then the story veers off into the individual narratives. A couple whose marriages may or may not survive infidelity. An expectant mother dealing with the realization that her parents may not have been who they seemed. A young woman who tells one lie which pulls her into thing she could not have imagined. A black sheep who inherits a fortune. A young man representing the issues of race and segregation. A mayor trying to deal with personal and professional ramifications of the crash. And more. Yes, the crash impacts all of them in different ways, but for most of them, it is not central to their stories.

I guess, at the heart of it, this book was not what I expected and not about what I expected. I might have enjoyed it more had the historical connection not been drawn. I expected more about the actual crash and those who perished. It wasn't there. I expected more incorporation of actual historical figures, but did not find that either. I expected more about the historical outcome, but that too is not really part of this story. This is a case of the history being much more interesting than the story that is built on it.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Travelling Cat Chronicles

Title:  The Travelling Cat Chronicles
Author:  Hiro Arikawa (author). Philip Gabriel (translator).
Publication Information:  Berkley. 2018. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0451491335 / 978-0451491336

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I am a cat."

Favorite Quote:  "Repeated patterns of childhood behaviour have long-term consequences."

A thirty-some year old man Satoru sets off on a journey to find a home for his cat Nana. Nana was a stray until he was injured. Satoru cared for Nana as a stray and then even more when Nana decided to stay and be Satoru's cat. The journey is narrated from different perspectives including that of Nana the cat. Hence, the name is literal. Nana the cat chronicles their travels.

The journey is literal and figurative. Satoru travels to different people who are or were once a part of his life to see if one of them can provide a home for Nana. This literal journey leads to conversations that travel through Satoru's life, from childhood onward. Finally, in this journey lies the answer to the question of why a relatively young man would need to find a new home for  his beloved pet, who is also truly his only companion. Thinking about it, that question is not hard to answer. There are not many reasons why such a journey would happen. As such, the revelation when it come is not a surprise.

Each stop along Satoru and Nana's journey is a person who influenced and made Satoru the person he is. It begins with a childhood friend and brings up the traumas of that childhood. This episode includes the cat Satoru had as a child. The journey ends with Satoru's aunt.

The story is a sweet one about the connection between a man and his pet and about the unconditional devotion both show to the other. That love is what I will remember about his book. Beyond that, I find myself challenged to connect to the book. Satoru never quite becomes real to me. I see him through Nana's eyes, which see someone almost perfect. Again, that reinfoces the idea of unconditional love. That aside, I don't find myself appreciating Nana's voice as the narrator. By definition, it is an orchestrated voice and as such once again puts reality just a bit too far out of reach.

The sweetness of Satoru and Nana's connection is counterbalanced by a lot of sadness and loneliness in this book. The ventures into Satoru's past include some really sad episodes, including deaths, loss of friendship, and even abuse. "Some people really shouldn't become parents. There's no absolute guarantee when it comes to the love between a parent and their child." These episodes and the nature of Satoru's journey mean that a sadness permeates the entire book.

The disclaimer in a translated book, of course, is a question. Does the book lose something in translation? Unfortunately, that one, I cannot answer.

Perhaps, I should have started this review with another disclaimer that because of an allergy, I am not really a cat person. What drew me to the book was the lovely cover, a chance to read Japanese fiction, and the unusual narrative voice. I wanted to see where it goes. I don't think being a "cat person" is necessary to enjoying this book, but perhaps you may disagree. The idea of a connection between two living beings and the idea of unconditional love go far beyond the fact that Satoru is a man, and Nana is a cat. I will leave the rest, but take that memory from this book.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

A Shout in the Ruins

Title:  A Shout in the Ruins
Author:  Kevin Powers
Publication Information:  Little, Brown and Company. 2018. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0316556475 / 978-0316556477

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

Opening Sentence:  "By 1870, not even four full years after the clerk of Chesterfield County, Virginia, officially recorded Emily Reid Levallois's, rumors of her survival and true whereabouts abounded."

Favorite Quote:  "Didn't anybody ever tell you that seems ain't is?"

This story, covering a century, is set in ruins - literally and figuratively. Told in alternating chapters in two time periods, the book is set in the South the aftermath of the Civil War and its continuing repercussions decades later. The connecting thread throughout is the Beauvais Plantation outside of Richmond, Virginia. The connection appears at times to be a relatively thin thread constructed to convey the varying perspectives all in one place.

I chose to read this book because of its setting in the time period immediately following the Civil War. I have read the history and stories of slavery. I have read about the Civil War. The theory of what happened at the end of the war is easily described. The North won. The South lost. Slaves were emancipated. The reality, however, is complicated; this is a period of history about which I have not read much. What happened after? How did the promise of freedom translate to reality? Did it? Has it yet?

The tale this book tells is a sordid and dark one, but it is a narrowly focused story. It is about the greed and cruelty of one man; it is about a desperate marriage; it is about one family and those who immediately surround it. As such, it becomes not as much about the historical context as the plot surrounding this one family.

The context is the larger one, and through the different characters, the book picks up on different perspectives on the time period. Anthony Levallios is the cruel and greedy opportunist. His wife and her father are the plantation owners fallen on hard times. Nurse and Rawls are the slaves seeking to carve out a life of their own. George is the one who decades later searches for answers to his family history.

The only thing binding the characters and the different story lines together is the plantation. As such, the overall image for me doesn't quiet come together. I see the pieces, but it does not coalesce into a composite image.

The unfortunate thing is that I get lost in this story. Many books successfully tell stories over two time periods. Although centered on this one plantation, this book just has a lot of characters, a lot of story threads, and a lot of movement back and forth. Some of the connections also are not clarified until well into the book. Overall, it becomes difficult to follow because the different threads are left off and picked up so many times. It also becomes challenging to determine what details might be crucial and what characters to remember because they may make an appearance later.

For me, part of the issue may be due in part to the extensive descriptions and the seemingly ornate language of the book. The language seems to add to the feeling of too much, especially in a relatively short book.

For these reasons, it feels like I never quite get out from the details to the bigger picture of the history.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Lauras

Title:  The Lauras
Author:  Sara Taylor
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2017. 304 pages.
ISBN:  045149685X / 978-0451496850

Book Source:  I received this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I could hear them arguing, the way they argued nearly every night now, their voices pitched low and rasping in that way that meant they thought they were being too quiet to wake me up."

Favorite Quote:  "It wasn't until I spent a day in the mountains, wandering for the sake of forward motion alone, that I realized that what I felt was a sort of anti-homesickness, a sick-of-home homesickness, that home for me was a place I was going to, rather than a place I could occupy."

After trying two books, I don't think I am the right reader for Sara Taylor's books. The plentiful premises of this book are all intriguing with potential to envelope the reader in a powerful, emotional story. As a coming of age story. As a story of a young woman and her mother. As a story of a road trip. As a story of a woman escaping an abusive relationship. As a story of individuals being defined by all they have encountered.

The story begins with a middle of the night departure. After one too many fights, Ma takes Alex and leaves her husband and her home. The destination is intended to be in California, far away from their Virginia home. However, the destination is not the critical part of this story. It is the journey itself.

The journey is both a physical one and a metaphorical one for both Ma and Alex. In many ways, their journeys parallel. Encounters and incidents in the present that influence Alex contain echoes of the stories that define Ma's past.

The narrator is young Alex so it is through her eyes that the reader sees Ma's journey. In many ways, this book is more Ma's story, but seen through Alex's eyes, that story remains at a distance. The theme of gender identification plays a key role in Alex's own journey. However, Alex is a thirteen year old, and as a reader, I don't feel like I really get to know her. Perhaps, that is the point being conveyed. Alex is determining who she is and taking the reader on that journey with her. Unfortunately, it becomes somewhat a Catch-22 situation. Without a feeling that I get to know her, it is challenging to want to follow Alex on her self-discovery.

There are two other reasons I find this book challenging. The first is that the structure is confusing. Ma is escaping an abusive situation. She is literally taking a trip down memory lane to tie up loose ends (a lot of them apparently). Alex is not completely aware of this; at times, she is just literally along for the ride. Yet, she is the narrator. Then, we have the fact that Alex is a teenager becoming more and more aware of herself and who she is. Her self-awareness grows with each stop on the trip and with each person she meets. It's a lot to follow.

The second and even greater reason that I am not the reader for this book is the sexual scenes in the book. In the first book I read by Sara Taylor, The Shore, the descriptions of violence overshadowed many other things in the book. In this one, it is the sexual scenes. It is just not for me. When the book is about and from the perspective of a thirteen to fifteen year old, it is even less for me. Because of the age of the main character, this book at times has a YA feel; however, the graphic sexual descriptions including those of rape firmly put it out of that character. Reader, beware.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.