The Jaguar Child (Rushdie)

I chose this book because I was in high school during Reagan’s support for the Contras, and I didn’t pay enough attention to the details. My instincts were distinctively anti-Reagan and I let theĀ Washington Post, with its competing headlines about problems with the Reagan and Barry administrations, do my thinking for me.

After this short book (137 pages), I can say that I think I understand things in broad strokes now. I certainly couldn’t give you a more current update. But I don’t think Rushdie was seeking to write an informative text, as much as he was trying to write about what was behind the headlines, what the real Nicaraguan life was like. Perhaps this paragraph explains –

‘History,’ in Veronica Wedgwood’s phrase, ‘is lived forward but it is written in retrospect.’ To live in the real world was to act without knowing the end. The act of living a real life differed, I mused, from the act of making a fictional one, too, because you were stuck with your mistakes. No revisions, no second drafts. To visit Nicaragua was to be shown that the world was not television, or history, or fiction. The world was real, and this was its actual, unmediated reality.

As I’ve come to expect from Rushdie, there’s a fair amount of Rushdie in the narrative. His concern about the censorship of a newspaper is overplayed, but, to be fair, he still seems hopeful about the Sandanistas. He seems a bit miffed, too, in the end, that he was the one asking all of the questions and that few questions were asked of him. Here he’s unkind, suggesting that the Nicaraguans have a limited view of the world (reflected, in part, in the poor coverage given to international affairs by the surviving newspapers) and only outsiders “knew that other perspectives existed [because they] had seen the view from elsewhere.” These final words ring hollow. At the same time that Rushdie acknowledges the privilege inherent in the North American / Western point of view, he overlooks that this privilege has allowed him to travel, something the Nicaraguans he’s reported on and interacted with, have little opportunity to do.

The Girl of His Dreams (Leon)

I’m finding that Leon’s mysteries are the right pace for the car. If I miss a few moments, I can quickly recover the plot.

Leon’s writing is fine, if a bit predictably snide in places. I like the concept of how this book ended, if not the actual execution of it. She seemed to be scrambling too much to make it plausible. She could have taken an easier route. I did like how she let one plot strand just drop completely. She seems aware (and puts it in the mouth of her detective near the end) that not everything can be explained neatly, if at all.

Some characters came off as too stock this time – the clueless police superior, for example – but they don’t get in the way too much. I like that Leon has more than the mystery on her mind here. She seeks to explore the impact of immigration on Venice.

So even though the descriptions of the wonderful meals are painful to hear as I munch on a granola bar, I will listen to and perhaps even read another one of her mysteries.

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (Millhauser)

Sometimes, when I am looking for something new to read, I’ll peruse lists like this one (http://www.pulitzer.org/bycat/Fiction). When I saw this title, I was surprised because I not only didn’t know the book, I’d never even heard of the author.

What a remarkable book. It evokes the spirit of Ragtime as well as the tone of writers like Dreiser. Millhauser’s sentences are monuments in and of themselves. Martin Dressler is a character I’ll not soon forget. He comes off like a fictional version of Robert Moses, one who lives best “in a world of definite things.”

This book made me long to walk the streets of late 19th century New York (though contemporary New York would likely be an adequate substitute) to admire the buildings, the constructions, the details. Imagine being there when New York was still becoming New York.

There is a lot to consider here, particularly concerning the architecture of public spaces and what happens to Martin, very much the quintessential American dreamer.

Wonderful, wonderful book. I wish I had a more formal excuse to write about it, so I could dig back into it. I will definitely re-read this one! You know that euphoria that washes over you after you finish a great book? I’m feeling it right now.

The Garden of Evening Mists (Eng)

This book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and after three years of living in London, I learned to trust the nominations. You’ve got to respect a country that shows a book awards show in prime time. In any event, this is the first time I’ve felt let down.

To be fair, as those who know me are aware, I generally argue pretty strongly against the need for any historical context in preparation for reading the book. Instead, I think that the author should be able to weave in what’s integral to the plot and that even if I remain fuzzy on some details of the history, I should still be able to follow the story. This book definitely challenges that assumption. For starters, I am pretty sure I couldn’t even find Malaya on a map, much less explain its relationship with Japan, China, and England. (And Eng tries to, often in very unsubtle expository scenes.)

Still, there seemed to be some promise here – why everyone – notably the gardener Aritomo and Yun Ling have come to live in the same place. But they are revealed in such a cursory and sudden way as to make them anti-climactic.

I was none too thrilled with the characterization. Yun Ling seems too perfect; Aritomo, if the author’s last name was different, would be considered a stereotype.

And if all that wasn’t enough, the strands of the narrative move across different time periods, even within the same chapter, which made it very difficult to get any momentum going as I read it.

Tell Me a Riddle (Olsen)

In Robert Coles’ book, The Call of Stories, he raved about Olsen’s collection so much that I had to find it. Though first published in the late 1950s, the writing seems to belong to another age, another place – neither of which I can name. Coles extolled the stories for what they did for the moral imagination, but I think I’d have read with others to have that conversation. The 4th story (Imagine, only 4 stories in a collection. Originally, it sold for $2.45; I paid $2.99 for it) is the one I found most compelling. It is also the title story, and it is a heartbreaking account – almost a poem – of the death of a grandmother. Her loving but perpetually irritated husband wants to sell the house and move to The Haven, but her declining health prompts travel – for example, to see the new grandchild that her daughter is glad to have had for her (the grandmother) before she (the grandmother) has died. But the grandmother wants no part of the child. While she’s there, another grandchild says, “Tell me a riddle, Grammy.” She replies, “I know no riddles, child.” She simply wants to go home where, in contrast to her own childhood, she has enough rooms (the plural is deliberate). They run into a former friend who has gone from 8 rooms to 1, and the grandmother is distraught. She calls the one room a “coffin.” When the end is clearly in sight, the children come “[t]oo late to ask: and what did you learn with your living, Mother, and what do we need to know?” But the grandmother, again, wants no part of this. “Let the living,” she says, “comfort each other.” Near the end, I found myself feeling for the grandfather as “he moved his hand bit by bit over the mirror to see what of the reflection he could blot out with each move, and felt that at any moment he would die of what was unendurable,” namely, her slow death.

Lovely, Dark and Deep (McNamara)

I can usually tell when the opening of a novel is over. The writer has spent so much time crafting and re-crafting the opening that eventually s/he has to come up for breath. McNamara never does. The first thing that rockets at you in Wren’s voice – a stew of fragments and sarcasm (“Like he’s a sales rep from the Land of Good to Go” [184] – I will steal this line.) In lesser hands, a line like, “Something has to be beautiful” (92) would sound trite, or would at least require the author to italicize the ‘has.’ But in McNamara’s hands and in Wren’s voice, it sounds both urgent and precise.

I loved the characters here – all of them. None are simple; all are surprising. The laid-back Dad makes mistakes and has the audacity to have his own life. The best friend is alternatively absolutely right and absolutely infuriating. The psychiatrist is neither stereotypical nor helpful.

That which is true of the characters is also true of the plot. I didn’t know what would happen with Wren, with Cal, with Meredith, Zara, et al. And I wanted to know.

In the end, Wren is right. Something does have to be beautiful. It’s a battle not easily won, nor is it over. But I was okay stepping off the ride when it ended.

Credit should also go to Lizzy Bromley for the book design; it sets the mood perfectly.

Though the title sends us to Frost, it’s Larkin that Wren holds close to her heart.

So I will leave you, as McNamara does, with this –

The Trees

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

[Full disclosure: I know the author’s sister, who gets a cameo in the book.]

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (Buzbee)

Buzbee calls this both a memoir and a history, and the book belongs in both categories. On the one hand, it is the story of his own experiences in many aspects of the book trade (writing, sales, working at bookstores, etc.) and the history of bookstores. He moves between each element quite seamlessly, and for those who share his book lust (his term), this is an inspiring read. I admire his generous willingness to avoid demonizing big box bookstores. His focus is on the independents, and he is optimistic. Since he knows of what he speaks, I’ll share the positive feeling.

I enjoyed Buzbee’s writing. I relished his description of being “alone with others” in a bookstore and his search for the book he knows he needs to buy (even if he doesn’t know the title before he finds it).