‘Transatlantic’ has a wandering spirit

Reading this book was like riding a roller coaster of emotions. Prior to claiming it off the library hold list I was excited about tackling it, having read some very positive reviews. Then I started reading it. My excitement diminished page by page as I struggled to understand why the story jumped around in time and place, from Newfoundland after World War I to Ireland in the 1840s to Missouri in the late 19th century. Each stop seemed completely unrelated to the one that came before and the one that followed. I began to wonder how on earth this disjointed mess had earned such lavish praise.

Then, finally, I realized that what had seemed to be completely unrelated chapters were actually tied together through the family lines of Lily Duggan, who was a maid in a fancy Dublin home when former slave Frederick Douglass comes to Ireland to drum up support for the American abolition movement. Each chapter had somewhere at its heart a descendant of Lily, from the Civil War mother who helps her husband run an ice-cutting empire in the American Midwest to the journalist who chronicles one of the first transatlantic flights to the woman who loses everything in contemporary Ireland.

Once I found the common thread, my interest and appreciation for the book picked up. I enjoyed most the chapters devoted to Douglass’ sojourn in Ireland and a visit more than century later by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, trying desperately to bring Catholics and Protestants to a lasting peace in Northern Ireland. None of the stories end in triumph; the most we can hope for, McCann implies, is a sense of quiet satisfaction and no expectation of glory. Many of the characters do not achieve even┬áthat minor grace, and my heart ached for some of their stories and lives.

Although by the end I was appreciating McCann’s cleverness and deft interweaving of timelines and placelines, I just can’t give this book my highest recommendation. I don’t need or want to be hit over the head with an anvil by an author trying to convey the themes he will explore, but to read roughly a third of a book without having any idea where it’s going seemed a shade too opaque for any but the most dedicated English major used to parsing meaning from prose.

In ‘A Possible Life’ the total is not greater than the sum of its parts

The subtitle of this newest offering from Sebastian Faulks is “A Novel in Five Parts”. There’s no question about the five parts; in separate sections Faulks tells the stories of five people who live in various places and eras. There’s Geoffrey, a British schoolteacher who experiences the horrors of World War II up close and is never quite the same. There’s Billy, who is a little boy in the mid-19th century when he is sent to a workhouse and ever after is on a desperate quest to fill the empty spaces in his heart and his soul. There’s Elena, living in the Italy of the near-future, who makes a successful scientific career out of her natural inclination toward solitude, except for the one person she lets into her heart. There’s Jeanne, an illiterate and orphaned woman in the early 19th century whose entire adult life is spent caring for someone else’s children. And there’s Anya, whose extraordinary songwriting and singing talent takes her to the pinnacle of success at the end of the 20th century, even as she leaves some shattered hearts in her wake.

If reading that summary leaves you wondering how the five parts tie together into a novel, I can set your mind at ease. They don’t. There are fleeting sentences here and there that imply a mystical connection between one or more of the stories, but nothing ever comes of them and the reader is left with five separate, good-tasting dishes that never come together into a satisfying meal.

The closest Faulks comes to a unifying theory is in Elena’s struggle to quantify scientifically where the human’s sense of self comes from. There’s a great deal of contemplating that we are all just clusters of cells and organic material and when we die we are again reduced to our most basic elements and eventually reformed again into another self. Perhaps we are meant to think of these five wildly different characters as all made from the same cells as they form and re-form through the ages. But that’s just a guess, because Faulks doesn’t offer anything in the way of explanation.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the writing of any of the individual pieces, and I found all them fairly engaging on their own merit. But when I turned the last page on Anya’s story, the only emotion I felt was, “Huh. I guess that’s that, then.” And that doesn’t seem like the emotions a successful project should evoke.

‘The Buddha in the Attic’

In The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka uses a strikingly original story form to explore the lives of Japanese mail-order brides summoned to California by strange men from their homeland who have emigrated before them. Rather than delve deeply into the stories of one or a handful of these women, Otsuka chooses instead to tell the stories of a multitude of women in a way that emphasizes the uniqueness of each of their lives. The unusual format is very effective at demonstrating the impossibility of ever telling the story of Japanese women in mid-20th century America. Each of them came from a different life in Japan, and found themselves married to very different men in America.

The multiple lives are recounted in an unwavering list format:

Some of us on the boat were from Kyoto, and were delicate and fair, and had lived our entire lives in darkened rooms at the back of the house. Some of us were from Nara, and prayed to our ancestors three times a day, and swore we could still hear the temple bells ringing. Some of us were farmers’ daughters from Yamaguchi with thick wrists and broad shoulders who had never gone to bed after nine. Some of us were from a small mountain hamlet in Yamanashi and had only recently seen our first train. Some of us were from Tokyo, and had seen everything, and spoke beautiful Japanese, and did not mix much with any of the others.

I don’t think this type of storytelling could sustain itself across an extended narrative, which may explain the slim size of Otsuka’s novel. Brevity in length should in no way be confused with slightness of impact, however. The Buddha in the Attic is a powerful insight into what life was like in pre- and post-World War II America for Japanese-Americans, and may haunt readers long after the final page is turned.

REVIEW: Doomsday Book

I picked up this book after reading the discussion of it in the Historical Fiction thread. The premise is that sometime in the near future (2050 or so) time travel is possible, and most of it (all of it? not clear from the narrative) is done by academic historians to learn more about the time period they study. Some centuries are off limits, though, because of their inherent danger. One of those periods is the Middle Ages, but a young Oxford historian manages to get approval to be sent back to 1320 anyway, on the grounds that it is well before the Black Plague reaches England. Things go awry, and she ends up smack dab in the middle of the Plague, although she doesn’t know it at first, and neither do her handlers back in the present time, who are battling their own plague of sorts.

I enjoyed this book for the most part, but there were several flaws that keep me from fully endorsing it. First, the author is (to my mind) unnecessarily coy about telling the reader that Kivrin has landed in the wrong year. If a reader had somehow never heard or read a single word about the book, the big ta-da reveal might be effective, but it instead seems annoying if you know anything at all (i.e., if you’ve read even the publisher’s summary on Amazon, for example). Another problem was that much of the present-day plot revolves around the inability to communicate, complete with jammed phone lines and no one having voice mail. It’s hard to believe that in 2050 we will have solved time travel but not phone circuitry! And of course, from the vantage point of 2010 the idea of time travel being not only possible but somewhat “old hat” by 2050 seems nearly laughable. The book was written in 1993, however, so that last nitpick is not really the author’s fault.

Despite these fairly serious flaws, I am interested in reading the other books in this series. I found the characters themselves to be engaging, and I appreciated the ending, which was not the usual “rescue and happy ever after” scenario. I’d like to see how the characters process what happened to them and how they move forward.

REVIEW: ‘Lucky Billy’ rolls snake eyes

book cover of Lucky BillyOne of my fellow Library Thing members (Kasthu) wrote that she got to page 29 of this novel by John Vernon before giving up in frustration. I’m afraid I wasn’t even that successful: Page 19 was the breaking point for me.

And it’s a darn shame, because I sure wanted to like this book. I love history, and I love stories about cowboys and the Old West, but this book manages to turn one of the most thrilling legends of American folklore into a dry, confusing, mundane tale.

As a rule, I don’t mind POV changes within a book, but it needs to be done well. The shifts should be clearly noted, and there should be enough of a difference in tone between the various “voices” to make it easy for the reader to adjust. The first two chapters alternate a third-person omniscient narrator with a first-person narrator, and it. Just. Doesn’t. Work. I get that those Old West fellas were laconic cowboy types, but Sheriff Pat Garrett seems to be on tranquilizers.

It was the sheriff’s chapter that did me in, sadly: He was describing to some barmates what Billy the Kid (his former pal turned nemesis) was really like, and it just about put me to sleep. Somehow, I don’t think that’s the intended effect when you’re talking about one of the most notorious outlaws of the Wild Wild West.

I guess I’ll just stick with Marty Robbins’ classic song version of the “Billy the Kid” story:

REVIEW: A Year of Wonders

book cover of A Year of WondersI’m majoring in history and geography, so this book by Geraldine Brooks appealed to me when Janet pulled it off the shelf. A Year of Wonders is a fictionalized account of a 17th century English village that reacts to the arrival of the Plague by quarantining itself from the rest of the world. The isolation provides a kind of psychological laboratory that examines the ways in which communities experience mass fear, mass hysteria, and the consequences of losing 2/3 of its population in the space of a year.

The story is told from the point of view of Anna, a maid for the local minister and his wife. It is the minister who through the force of his personality convinces the villagers to close them off from the rest of the world, and who struggles mightily to keep them from succumbing to superstition even as entire families of their neighbors die. Anna is a sympathetic narrator, not immune to the tragedies wrought by the infection. The oddity of a peasant-class woman knowing how to read and write is addressed in the text.

I thought I knew where this book was going, if not the details, but the ending really took me by surprise. The unusual twist requires the reader to re-examine their assumptions and casts familiar characters in an entirely new light. I don’t know how realistic it is — not very, I suspect — but it surely made me think.

Another interesting aspect: Brooks’ afterword details her research into a real-life village that was the inspiration for her novel. While she used many of the known facts, they are few and far between, which gave Brooks a license to invent. I suspect that if we were able to know the true story it would be fascinating in its own right, but in the absence of that, Brooks has given us a fine substitute.