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Friday, April 11, 2014

Review: 'The Here and Now'

The Here and Now
By Ann Brashares
YA science fiction
April 2014
Delacorte Press
ISBN: 978-0385736800

Preena really isn't like most of the other kids in school. Really. She is from the future.

Ethan has something that sets him apart as well. Four years ago, he saw Preena arrive.

She is one of a group of time travelers from the future. Plague has decimated humankind and climate change is ending life on the planet. The time travelers came back to our time because their families wanted them to be saved.

Preena and Ethan are the kind of couple destined -- normally -- to have a romantic comedy after meeting cute. They pair up well and Brashares conveys fresh, light-hearted like-into-love very well. But the pair are soon drawn into an attempt to set things on a different course in time, so the future Preena knows doesn't happen. A mysterious homeless man appears to know more than a crazy old street man should know about Preena and the others like her.

From there until the story's end, The Here and Now weaves together the personal and world conflicts in stunning fashion. The ups and downs that face Preena and Ethan as they race to prevent a cataclysmic event that set the future into motion may affect the possiblity that they have a future together, or not, as well as the future of humanity.

Before the heartfelt conclusion -- an "oh, wow!" ending if ever there was one -- Brashares adds another mindful layer to the novel. What is a solution to some characters is a tragic new problem to others. Even if a reader takes sides, it's still worthwhile to be able to see another perspective.

This is a tremendously thoughtful novel with engaging characters. The biggest fans of Brashares's popular Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and those coming to her writing for the first time will all be glad they have read The Here and Now.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Review: 'By Its Cover'

By Its Cover
By Donna Leon
Crime fiction
April  2014
Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 978-0802122643

Donna Leon's love of books and literature has shone in her Inspector Brunetti mysteries, especially through the character of Brunetti's wife, Paola.  In By Its Cover, books as objects are at the heart of the story's mystery.

Because this is a Brunetti story, in which differences matter, a distinction is made between books as art objects and the text contained on the pages of those objects. For rich collectors, the objects have more value. For the Brunettis, who live a book-strewn life in which volumes are left open and upside down, snuggled into cushions of furniture and perhaps even dog-eared, books are far more valuable for what they contain than for their appearance. And because this is a Brunetti story, perhaps this is a way to view people as well.

Brunetti is called to a Venetian scholarly library where old and revered volumes reside. Someone has been cutting out specific pages that are highly valued by collectors, while other rare and costly volumes are missing.

Suspicion immediately falls on a visiting American scholar, whose credentials soon prove to be false. Brunetti would like to speak with another man who spends many hours in the library -- a former priest who reads the works of older religious figures.

Adding to Brunetti's knowledge of this world are a library employee who helps retrieve books, the elegant library director and the woman whose generous donations form part of the damaged and stolen bounty. The benefactress is known to Paola's patrician parents, as is her wastrel stepson. But because she is not Venetian, she is not as valued by the small group that makes up the highest rung of Venetian society.

Donna Leon's compact story delves into the mystery of the underground market of rare books. But By Its Cover also touches on the idea of judging people by their covers, by their outside appearances and background. And because this novel is written by Donna Leon, that touch is light yet incisive.

By Its Cover is a shining example of how an author can keep a long-running crime fiction series fresh, relevant and highly entertaining.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Review: 'The Infatuations'

By Javier Marias
Literary Fiction
August 2013
ISBN: 978-0307960726

What is the point of a novel? Of any fiction? For many readers, the story is the point. It's a universal desire -- tell me a story! -- that first occurs to us when we are very young and which carries through our entire lives, to the tales told to a dying person to provide what little comfort they may impart.

Joan Didion says it very well: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." To make sense of our world, to put an overlay of narrative on the chaos of life, to give it a semblance of order. We crave stories, we need them.
But not according to Javier Marías in his novel, The Infatuations, which was translated from Spanish into English last year. The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner has produced a work of art that is more about conclusions and feelings than the actual plot.

The story part of the novel is slight but is the kind that is most often seen in fast-paced thrillers, in noir tales, in dark, psychological whydunits. A young woman notices a happily married couple who have breakfast at the same restaurant where she eats every morning. Their delight in each other's company is the bright spot in Maria's daily routine.

The husband is slain one day, the victim of a homeless man who hears voices. He is stabbed out on the street in the middle of the day, on his birthday, and leaves the widow with two children.

A chance encounter leads the narrator to finally speak with the widow. Maria visits Luisa's apartment, listens to her and is present when family friend Javier and an acquaintance, a pompous professor, stop by.

Another chance encounter later, Maria runs into Javier at a museum. They begin a shallow affair in which she is basically on call whenever he decides he wants some company. Her feelings are a bit deeper, but she knows they are not as deep as his feelings for the widow.

And, one night, she wakes up in his apartment after a tryst to hear him talk to a stranger in the living room.
What she hears could have sent the story in so many directions, and most of us have read and seen those directions in books and movies. But that's not the way Marías goes. Just as earlier, he tests the most ardent and open of readers by pages and pages of disgressive conversations that are little more than long soliloquies by their participants, he drops any pretense at narrative being propelled forward by events. He does this on purpose.

Because what happens is not the point of his novel:

What happened is the least of it. It's a novel, and once you've finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matter are the possibilities and ideas that the novel's imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.

The importance of "possibilities and ideas" are reinforced within the narrative by Javier recounting to Maria Balzac's tale of Colonel Chabert, who comes back from the dead to reclaim his remarried wife, and Milady de Winter, that evil woman in The Three Musketeers who comes back from the dead to torment Athos and his colleagues.

Maria can't quite agree with Javier's premise about plot:

That isn't true, or, rather, it's sometimes true, but one doesn't always forget what happened, not in a novel that almost everyone knew or knows, even those who have never read it, nor in reality when what happens is actually happening to us and is going to be our story, which could end one way or another with no novelist to decide" what happens.

Marías demonstrates in The Infatuations that what happens is not as important as how we feel about what happens and how we carry on after something happens. Every character in his novel is true to this point he makes about "what happened is the least of it" -- and in an audacious work about a killing, to be true to this point is quite an accomplishment.

The Infatuations is a brilliant work but not an enjoyable one to read if narrative pull matters. The short chapters made it easier to set the book down and take a breath, important in a work with long, convoluted sentences. The novel is more nearly a chapbook of philosophical asides, even though the asides are consistent with each other, than it is a story.

If, on some occasion down the road, you find a Tumblr account of quotes from The Infatuations, it's likely I've made it. The ideas are beautifully written and gorgeously translated (by Margaret Jull Costa) and worthy of consideration. To large measure, those ideas are about how we feel about the people we love, especially when they have died. How long do we mourn them, how do we keep their memory alive, how do we honor them in our continuing to live? Or do we allow them to go, do we let go of them and carry on with new loves? What do we wish for those we love who we leave behind when we die? when confronted with the knowledge that someone is not who he seems to be, what should one do? What chances should anyone take when reaching out to others?

These are the things that will linger for me about The Infatuations, not the plot.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday Sentence: Goat Mountain

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without further context or commentary:

The darkness a great muscle tightning, filled with blood, a living thing already before god came to do his work. No first breath but an earlier animation and pulse and pressure. I lay in that darkness waiting, and I did not sleep, and the stars meant  nothing but only the dark spaces between them.

-- David Vann, Goat Mountain

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sunday Sentence: David Vann

As inspired by David Abrams, Fobbit author, at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I've read this week, presented without further context or comment:

My father etched and luminous even in shadow, a thing set off from the rest of the earth, overly present.

-- David Vann, Goat Mountain

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Review: 'My Life in Middlemarch'

My Life in Middlemarch
By Rebecca Mead
Memoir/literary criticism
January 2014
ISBN: 978-0-307-98476-0

Some books are too full, too layered and so rewarding that they cannot be reduced to a blurb. That's true of George Eliot's Middlemarch, which will enrich a reader in different ways through a lifetime of re-reads. It's also true of Rebecca Mead's look at Middlemarch, its author and the ways they have affected her life in My Life in Middlemarch.

Middlemarch is one of those novels that can capture a reader and never let go. The ups and downs of the fate suffered by the first main character we meet, Dorothea Brooke, so determined to do the right thing and so blind as to the downfall of her own impulse, the way the novel doesn't focus only on Dorothea but takes up the stories of other residents of the bucolic town, the way things don't necessarily turn out the way a reader would suspect but rarely ring false -- Middlemarch is a huge, sprawling, heartfelt and wise book.

Mead, a writer for The New Yorker, encountered the novel while young and fell under its spell. For anyone else who has done the same, her deep love for the book will set off an echo of memory for any sympathetic reader to the first time those pages were opened. The feeling of being where I was when first I read Middlemarch has been hard to shake off for days, and it's because Mead took me there with her own memory. That is powerful writing.

Mead does a wonderful job of reporting on her own reactions to the novel at different stages of her life, noting the ways in which what has happened to her have changed the way in which the book resonates for her. This is a wonderful sort of memoir because it shows that how a person changes can affect other aspects of life, such as the way in which one regards a revered part of one's life (and, yes, devotion to a book can indeed be that strong).

There is more to the novel than the ways in which a reader reacts to it, and there is much more to Mead's book. She also weaves in parts of Eliot's life and philosophy to specifc parts of the novel. And Mead is a discerning literary critic in comparing Eliot's goals with how they can be seen in her writing. She even makes cogent connections between Virgina Woolf and Eliot, which matters because Woolf's review of Middlemarch is the one that is still most often-quoted -- as the book being "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people".

Mead also puts Eliot squarely in the novelist's own time and shows how she was regarded during her lifetime and afterward. The way in which Mead brings this back to herself and her life to conclude My Life in Middlemarch is so satisfying that it's hard to decide which to do first -- read Middlemarch again or read My Life in Middlemarch again.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Book Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sunday Sentence: George Eliot

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without added commentary:

The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. ... Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellowmen beyond the bounds of our personal lot.

-- George Eliot, The Natural History of German Life as encountered in Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch