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April 27, 2020

Book Review: The Good People

The Good People, by Hannah Kent


Although she was born and lives in Australia, Hannah Kent deserves at least an honorary place in the pantheon of great Irish novelists.

She brings all five sense to to her writing.

She uses her eyes for the intricacies of the Irish language, her ear for the turn of a phrase, her smell for the land, the animals, and the bog, her taste for the medicinal herbs, and her touch with a sensitivity for the rural Irish culture.

The Good People is set in Ireland of the 1820s, when the fairies battled with the Catholic Church over truth and morality, and a close knit people battled wih themselves over much the same things. Kent explains that The Good People were what the Irish natives called their fairies and their stories.
Irish fairy lore was (and remains) a deeply complex, ambiguous system of folk belief -- there is little that is twee or childish about it. ... In writing this work of fiction, I have tried to portray fairy and folk belief as part of the fabric of everyday rural nineteenth-century life, rather than as anomalous.
In her novel, Kent addresses issues of poverty, rural life, gossip, religious power and hypocrisy, and female empowerment. Her characters include a teenage girl brought into a strange situation in a new community that involves an old woman wildly considered to be a witch, a widowed woman grieving over the death of her husband, her daughter, and the loss of her grandson to illness, and that boy, who may be a changling.

Having a changling -- someone stolen and replaced by the fairies -- brings in additional issues of belief, magic, and supersition.

Resolving them involves some truth -- the novel is based on a real-life incident that occurred in 1826 in County Kerry, Ireland. But of course, it includes literary license, all written in a fine style that causes one to stop to appreciate the writer's grace and talent.

April 19, 2020

Book Review: Queenie

Queenie, by Candice Carty-Williams


Much like its protagonist, this novel is bi-polar. Some of it -- especially the final couple of chapters -- is extraordinary. 

But too much of it is mundane or head-scratching. It's meant to portray a woman going through a tough period in her life, but sometimes you want to be like her grandmother and figuratively smack her upside the head and tell her to get her act together.

OK, perhaps that is cruel thought when discussing a book about a potential mental illness, an issue the book handles quite well. But you often see where Queenie is headed, and want to beg her to avoid the poor choices you know she is going to make. It's going to turn out badly -- you know it, she knows it; hell, all of England knows it -- yet she's going to play it through.

And yes, I recognize I am a man critiquing a woman's perspective, with all the limitations that entails. 

Queenie Jenkins is a young black woman of Jamacian heritage growing up in south London. A lot is changing in her life -- she's starting a new job, her white boyfriend is on the edge of dumping her -- taking a break, he calls it -- and her traditional Caribbean neighborhood of Brixton is undergoing gentrification. So she tries to muddle through by overreacting, underreacting, and looking to fill her loneliness with sex.

Queenie also tries to be a politcal activist. She expresses both sadness and anger at the number of black men and women in the United States and the United Kingdom who are being harassed and attacked by police. She tries, without success, to get her editor to give her assigments on the issue. She is an avid supporter of Black Lives Matter.

The book includes some decent arguments on these issue. But not near enough, and when they occur, they seem like afterthoughts.  They are few and far between, being overtaken by her chatter with her girlfriends, her poor decisions about men, her roommates, and her family problems. 

Perhaps I wanted and expected a more political book about dealing with what it's like to grow up as a black woman in London. Because I did get some of that. But I got more pesonal matters -- if you enjoy reading about those, go ahead and grab this book. It does have its strong points.

Overall, it just isn't -- to overuse a British phrase -- my cup of tea.

April 10, 2020

Book Review: Little Red Chairs

The Little Red Chairs, by Edna O'Brien


A foreigner, handsome and debonair, moves to small-town Ireland.

Now, Dr. Vlad is a bit strange, who portrays himself as a philosopher, a poet, and a sage. He seems eager to open the natives up to a new world. Soon -- to at least one lonely woman -- he becomes a companion and, eventually, a lover.

But then he is outed as a monster. For Dr. Vlad is not the refugee from Eastern Europe that he claims. He is not a victim but a war criminal, who led the torture and slaughter of thousands of his people.

None of the preceeding is a spoiler -- it's all there in the blurbs for the book. Indeed, the title relates to a piece of performance art that lined up 11,541 little red chairs to symbolize the 11,541 people who were killed in the Seige of Sarajevo in 1992. (Indeed, Dr. Vlad closely resembles Radovan Karadzic -- the Serbian president during the Bosnian war, who was convicted of war crimes.)

During his own war-crimes trial, there is this passage about Dr. Vlad and his delusions:
Sarajevo was his adopted city, the city he loved, and every shell that fell there hurt him personally, As he looked out towards his muted audience, he was like a man on the brink of his own creation.
This is quite a confounding book. On the one hand, it is lovely -- exquisitely written, capturing the voices of the meglomaniac and his enablers, along with the fears and dreams of the Irish villagers. O'Brien shows how hatred and division can be both universal and invisible.Despair and hope co-exist. Compassion, madness, and evil make their appearances.

But some parts literally make you cringe. She describes some brutally gruesome scenes of horror from both the past -- and the present -- as the result of Dr. Vlad's followers and henchmen. These descriptions are so explicit that I cannot imagine how she wrote them.

I do not think they are needed to provide one with the horror of the war and its atrocities, and including them make the book almost unreadable. Indeed, in two places, I saw what was coming and managed to skip over them.

March 24, 2020

Book Review: The Pine Barrens

The Pine Barrens, by John McPhee


Reading this 52-year-old book is not a step back in time. Rather, it's like reading Wendell Berry writing about his beloved Kentucky, showing how the land centers us in a place, and how that place helps to define us.
Joxer the Mighty says he could be a Piney, too
McPhee's 1967 book helped bring attention to the diverse environment of the Pine Barrens in southern New Jersey. Partly as a result, Congress designated more than one million acres as the Pinelands National Reserve, strictly limiting development in the fragile area.

The Pinelands is a forest of sandy land flanked by the populous East Coast and the Philadelphia metropolis. Its soil also is acidic and nutrient poor, so early settlers passed it over in favor of richer land in other directions. Small industries developed here and there, but by the time of the civil war, larger factories could do the work cheaper and closer to the markets. The Pinelands mostly reverted to its natural state.

Small crossroads towns popped up where a few independent families stayed on. The population shrunk to a few hardy settlers who remained.

McPhee captures them in a beautifully written narrative. His eye for detail, his ear for language, and his sense of culture is extraordinary. He wrote not as a native of the barrens, but as one who had taken the time to learn and understand the people who live there. He gained the trust and respect of a enigmatic people who, for good reason, are normally suspicious of outsiders.
Some of the gentlest of people -- botanists, canoemen, campers -- spend a great deal of time in the pines, but their influence has not been sufficient to correct an impression, vivid in some parts of the state for fifty years, that the pineys are weird and sometimes dangerous barefoot people who live in caves, marry their sisters, and eat snakes. Pineys are, for the most part, mild and shy, but their resentment is deep, and they will readily and forcefully express it.
Later, McPhee brings us to the largest crossroads town in the Pinelands, where the natives show disdain for the image outsiders have of them. The owner of the local grocery store shared her thoughts.
Live in caves and intermarry, hah. No one ever lived in caves that I heard of. I don't know anyone around here except one family that's intermarried, and I've lived here all my life. 
The book is full of little tidbits like that.  It's historical, folk-lorical, and metaphorical. It intersperses interviews with and descriptions of the Pineys with details of the Pinelands ecology, history, and geography. It's a little book -- barely 150 pages -- but it packs a lot of detail.

March 15, 2020

Book Review: The Singer's Gun

The Singer's Gun, by Emily St. John Mandel


First off, this is a good book. It's well written, and its story hits all the strong points -- family, love, crime, and travel.

Yet, it has a couple of failings. Some of the characters' actions make you wonder what they -- or their creator -- were thinking. Mandel's characters tend to be passive kettles for the actions of others. For instance, Anton Waker, the protagomist in this book, seems to go through life accepting that things just happen to him. He may not like them; he doesn't really want them to continue, but he seems unable or unwilling to do anything about them.

The book also contains gaping plots holes that make you look askance, twist your face into a quizzical grimace, and ask, "what the ???" Story arcs seem contrived to further a dilemma, but the easiest solution is ignored. Important decisions are pre-ordained, despite a character's disinclination to take that route. Even when the original problem is resolved, the character continues on the ill-chosen path, with severe consequences.

The novel tells the story of Waker, the Brooklyn-born son of an immigrant couple who traffic in stolen artifacts. The parents are minor characters in the tale, but their adoption of a niece left behind when her parents are deported give them a benevolent sheen over their criminality. 

The niece, Aria, starts out as a street-wise urchin, but turns into a woman who runs her own criminal enterprise, which involves Anton more or less against his will. Anton finds a temporary way out, but Aria wants to drag him back in, and he feels forced to go along. 

Thus we wind up in Ischia, a tiny tourist village on a small island off the coast of Naples. A good part of the story occurs here, and the setting is beautiful. We understand why Anton feels compelled to stay.

But we fail to understand his hemming and hawing, his refusal to make a decision, and his inclination to just wait until something happens. When it does, we are neither surprised nor sympathetic.