Monday, January 20, 2014

The Waterworks by E.L. Doctorow

I have always admired E.L. Doctorow since I first read Ragtime back in 1976.  I met him that year at the 92nd Street YMCA in New York City.  Over the years he has published 15 novels and some collections of essays.  I lost track of him for a few years, but I resumed my interest with his 2009 work, Homer and Langley, a fictionalized account of two reclusive brothers living in New York.  Now I am trying to catch up with a few of his novels I have missed over the years.  The Waterworks, published in 1994, is another installment in the history and politics of The Big Apple.

Martin Pemberton is a free lance writer for a New York daily newspaper in the decade following the end of the War between the States.  His editor, Mr. McIlvaine, considers him his best writer, and so he accommodates Martin’s sometimes peculiar work habits.  Martin is estranged from his father after writing an essay which attempts to depict the dark side of his father’s wealth.  The essay hit home, and revealed greed corruption, and a financial interest in the slave trade.

One day, Martin appears at the office of the editor to turn in his latest article for the paper.  Martin is disheveled, bloodied, and raving about seeing his father, Augustus, who had died several years prior.  At his death, the widow, Sarah, and her young son, Noah, found themselves destitute and living on the charity of Sarah’s sister.

As a prominent man, numerous citizens had attended his funeral, so Martin’s ravings were considered just that.  However, McIlvaine thought he saw something of the truth in Martin’s behavior, and when he left the office and disappeared for a few days, he became concerned. 

Thus begins McIlvaine’s investigation into the life and circumstances of Augustus Pemberton and his connection to Boss Tweed and the corruption rampant in New York at the time.

The novel begins with somewhat turgid prose typical of the 19th century, but as the editor uncovers more and more details of the family, the narrative picks up a head of frenzy to solve the mystery of Martin’s disappearance.  In this passage, Doctorow describes New York in 1870.  He writes, “You may think you are living in modern times, here and now, but that is the necessary illusion of every age.  We did not conduct ourselves as if we were preparatory to your time.  There was nothing quaint or colorful about us.  I assure you, New York after the war was more creative, more deadly, more of a genius society than it is now.  Our rotary presses put fifteen, twenty thousand newspapers on the street for a penny or two.  Enormous steam engines powered the mills and factories, Gas lamps lit the streets at night.  We were three quarters of a century into the Industrial Revolution” (11-12).

E.L. Doctorow
 The novel reminded me of a BBC import about New York during the same time period.  Copper tells the story of the corruption, poverty, and near chaos of the time.  Many of Doctorow’s events were paralleled in the series which recently completed its second season.  I am anxiously awaiting the third.

If you are not familiar with E.L. Doctorow, The Waterworks is as good a place to start your journey as any of his novels.  I haven’t read them all, but I have never read on I did not thoroughly enjoy.  5 stars

--Chiron, 1/20/14

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I never ceased to be amazed at the variety and number of narratives reminding us of the horrors of The Holocaust.  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak was a finalist for the 2007 Michael Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Fiction awarded annually by the American Library Association.  It has hovered near the top of my TBR for a couple of years, and when the announcement of the release of the film came, I moved it to the top.

This gripping story tells of young Leisel Meminger, whose brother has died on a train taking her to a couple in Molching, a Bavarian town near Munich for the duration of the World War II.  The train stops to remove the body for burial.  Leisel cannot bear to leave her brother behind, and she lingers near the grave.  As the time approaches to re-board the train, she finds a book -- The Grave Digger’s Handbook – dropped by one of the cemetery workers.  Leisel cannot read, but the book links her to her brother.  This is the first book she steals.  Zusak sets the story in 1939, and the knowledge of the events just over the horizon, adds a chilling depth to the story.

Her foster parents, Hans and Rosa Hubermann welcome the girl to their home.  Rosa, who does laundry for some of the wealthier local families seems annoyed at the intruder, and she quickly becomes a strict taskmaster.  Hans, a painter, immediately develops a close relationship with Liesel, and the two become good friends.  He teaches her to read and write beginning with The Grave Digger’s Handbook.  The story is narrated by death.

As the war intensifies, Rosa and Hans – barely scrapping by -- begin losing customers, food becomes scarce, and soon the war arrives in Molching.  The Hubermanns also shelter a Jewish man trying to escape Germany.  Max also develops a warm relationship with Liesel, and the two read and write in the secrecy of the basement.

Markus Zusak
I marked so many moving passages, I could write numerous versions of this review.  The Book Thief is one of those rare novels when every word touches the soul.  Despite the ominous setting, the terrible events already set in motion, there are passages of tenderness and beauty.  Zusak writes, “Steadily, the room shrank, till the book thief could touch the shelves within a few small steps.  She ran the back of her hand along the first shelf, listening to the shuffle of her fingernails gliding across the spinal cord of each book.  It sounded like an instrument, or the notes of running feet.  She used both hands.  She raced them.  One shelf against the other.  And she laughed.  Her voice was sprawled out, high in her throat, and when she eventually stopped and stood in the middle of the room, she spent many minutes looking from the shelves to her fingers and back again.  // How many books had she touched? // How many had she felt?  She walked over and did it again, this time much slower, with her hand facing forward, allowing the dough of her palm to feel the small hurdle of each book.  It felt like magic, like beauty, as bright lines of light shone down from a chandelier.  Several times, she almost pulled a title from its pace but didn’t dare disturb them.  They were too perfect. // To her left, she saw the woman again” (135).

Heinrich Heine wrote, “Wherever they burn books, they will, in the end, also burn human beings.”  We need reminders of the horrors of war and the terrible depths to which is capable of sinking.  Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief also reminds me how precious my library really is.  5 stars

--Chiron, 1/12/14

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Our Kind by Kate Walbert

I have often mentioned my “Rule of 50” in this blog, and Kate Walbert’s Our Kind is a perfect example of how well that rule works.  I read this book in 2007 and barely got passed the first story.  My Page-a-Day Calendar recently featured this novel told in a collection of vignettes, so I decided to give it another try.  A caterpillar has evolved into a magnificent butterfly.

According to her website, Kate Walbert was born in New York City and raised in Georgia, Texas, Japan, and Pennsylvania, among other places.  She is the author of A Short History of Women, chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the ten best books of 2009 and a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize.  Our Kind was a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction in 2004.  She also wrote The Gardens of Kyoto, which won awards as well.  Her short fiction has been published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories.

This collection relates the stories of about 9 women loosely connected by social class, club membership, and the fact they had all lost their husbands – mostly to divorce.  As Walbert writes, “Here was the dawn of Something Big, Canoe said, a shifting of the paradigm.  A creative burst!  You couldn’t not read about it: women in their middle years coming into their own, meeting second husbands, starting businesses, traveling around the globe.  We could do any damn thing we liked, Canoe said, unfettered as we were, and we would, we knew, just as soon as we thought what” (160).

So their days revolve around lunches at the club, tennis, visiting a sick friend in a nursing home, or organizing an intervention for an alcoholic friend.  Set in the 60s and 70s, they smoke and drink with elegance.  The women have an entire array of problems and difficulties, but these women are strong – for the most part – and determined to live the remainder of their lives to the fullest extent possible.

Kate Walbert
While Walbert’s style is a bit peculiar – it resembles a series of thoughts linked to lead the reader to an idea the narrator seeks.  For example, Walbert writes, “He was someone we loved.  Someone we could not help but love.  A colleague of our ex-husbands, a past encounter.  We had known Him since before we were we, from our first weeks in this town, early summers.  We loved His hair.  Golden.  The color of that movie actor’s hair, the famous one.  Sometimes we caught just the gleam of it through the windshield of his BMW as He drove by.  Sporty.  Waving.  Green metallic, leather interior” (3-4).  However, I stuck with it this time, and easily began to slide along with the narrator. 

Kate Walbert’s Our Kind is a wonderful story of women taking control of their lives and enjoying themselves and each other.  Mimi, Esther, Suzie, Viv, Canoe, Judy, Bambi, Cookie, Louise, and Barbara are all interesting, introspective women who hold their own in this complicated dance of mid-life.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 1/5/14

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

 My wife started out her career as a children’s librarian in a small school in North Carolina.  She went onto graduate school and currently works for the Baylor University Library.  She has never forgotten her kiddie lit roots, so we have a lot of children and young adult fiction in our collection.  She frequently urges me to read this or that Newberry Award winner, and I have enjoyed everyone I read.  Madeleine L’Engle recently came up in a conversation, and we were both surprised I had never read it.  After the intense historical novel by Hilary Mantel I had recently finished, I needed something to sooth my psyche.  A Wrinkle in Time is exactly what the librarian ordered.  I noted from the cover of my copy, that this interesting tale recently celebrated its silver anniversary.

Madeliene L’Engle was born November 29, 1918.  Like Meg, she was not a good student preferring to read and write her stories.  When she was 12, her mother sent her to a Swiss Boarding school.  She returned to Charleston, SC for high school.  Madeleine flourished there, and ended up at Smith College, where she read the classics and continued to write.  Several of her English professors had a profound influence on her writing.  When she graduated, she moved to Greenwich Village in New York, and worked in the theater.  Her first two novels were published during this time.  Madeleine began an association with the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, where she was the librarian and maintained an office for more than thirty years. She wrote over 60 books. She died in 2007.
Madeleine L'Engle

Meg and her brother Charles Wallace are bright children, but Meg seems bored, and Charles Wallace hides his intellect to prevent teasing by his classmates.  A mysterious visitor – Mrs. Whatsit – comes for a visit, and she entices Meg and her brother to go on a dangerous journey to find their father who suddenly disappeared.  Mrs. Murry, Meg and Charles’s mother is a scientist like Mr. Murry.  Mrs. Whatsit has two friends – Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which.  They have strange powers and abilities and help to guide the children to their father’s location, so they can attempt to rescue him.  A friend of Meg’s, Calvin O’Keefe, also accompanies Meg and Charles Wallace on the journey.  I guess even characters in young adult fiction need a love interest, like Katniss in Hunger Games and Harry in The Sorcerer’s Stone and its sequels.

While not nearly as exciting and detailed as The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter Series, the tale has more than enough wonderful ideas to hold the attention of an adult reader.  Science, religion, and literature are all woven into the tale.  For example, L’Engle writes, “‘You mean you’re comparing our lives to a sonnet?  A strict form, but freedom within it?’  ‘Yes.’ Mrs. Whatsit said.  ‘You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself.  What you say is completely up to you.’” (219).

An easy read for a few afternoons, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle is interesting, and well worth the time.  It also deserves 5 stars.

--Chiron, 12/31/13