Teaser Tuesdays: The Living by Annie Dillard

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

the living

As is the new norm with audiobooks, I am working my way through Annie Dillard’s novel about my new place of residence very slowly. Set in the region including and surrounding what is now the town of Bellingham, The Living is about the early days of settlement. It is a large and sweeping tale that spans generations, which will give me some challenge when it is time to write about the whole, since I’m taking so long to listen to it. But no worries. It remains an engaging story, and it’s always stimulating to read about a place that you know. Today’s teaser involves a settler to Washington state traveling back east for a visit.

Minta considered the Rockies inferior to the Cascades and dull, for they lacked form, height, and glaciers. The volcanic cones she loved, Mount Baker and Mount Rainer, had enormous forests at their skirts, and waterfalls that drained the meadows above the forests, and precipitous snowfields and glaciers that rose above the clouds.

Indeed. As I am a new resident of Cascadia, this is something to think about in a country enamored of the Rockies.

Thanks for stopping by today. I’ll get around to reviewing this novel one of these days…

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

This compelling novel of resistance to the Norman Invasion, told in a hybrid of Old English, will satisfy motivated readers of history, ecology and the persistent pull of the old gods.

wake

The Wake is a singular debut novel by Paul Kingsnorth (One No, Many Yeses; Real England), set in England immediately following the Norman invasion of 1066. Its first-person narrator is a landowner named Buccmaster, who has lost everything to the attack: his family, his home, his land and his privilege. He takes to the fens and woods, with revenge in his heart and an intention to drive the French from his land and all of England. There he becomes one of the guerrilla fighters known as green men, whose chapter in history is little known.

What makes this powerful story distinctive is Kingsnorth’s decision to write the story in what he calls a “shadow tongue,” an Old English hybrid of the author’s invention, made slightly more understandable to the modern reader. This choice presents an undeniable challenge to the reader, and requires substantial extra effort to pursue the story. (Hint: try reading aloud, to hear cognates and the rhythm of the speech). But Kingsnorth defends his strategy: it evocatively renders Buccmaster’s voice, and brings to an already gripping saga a layer of new meaning, in that the reader has to participate in creating that meaning through interpreting unfamiliar words. A partial glossary deciphers some words, but many are left for the reader to define via context clues and, yes, guessing. Some readers will be turned away. But those who persist will find the language easier to follow after 20-40 pages, and will be rewarded by Buccmaster’s riveting narrative.

Buccmaster is a follower of the eald (old) gods, as was his grandfather, the gods of wilde places on the earth and its wihts (creatures). His father was not. “I will not spec of my father,” he says, but the story of his father is only one of the details that this unreliable narrator leaves out. As Buccmaster travels overland on foot, gathering companions who also wish to drive out the French, he journeys as well into the myths and traditions of his elders, and envisions a grand role for himself. The fate of his band of green men is as tenuous as that of England, as their leader struggles with reality.

The Wake is an ambitious novel in its themes and scope, in addition to its unusual linguistic decisions. As the English folc in his story become disconnected from their land, they lose their freedom: “if the frenc cums and tacs this land and gifs these treows [trees] sum frenc name they will not be the same treows no mor.” As an impassioned defense of the natural world and people’s responsibilities toward it, the novel acts as a metaphor for modern times. Buccmaster’s personal narrative is a lesson in pride and its dangers, a glimpse of another culture in its own language. Kingsnorth’s captivating first novel is thought provoking, multi-faceted and intriguingly rendered.


This review originally ran in the August 11, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 fugols.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose (audio)

lovers at theAgain I took way too long to listen to the whole of this audiobook, which might hinder my review a little. But it worked out rather well: Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 is an engaging story, that covers a number of years and is told from a number of perspectives. This might have been confusing when broken up over such a long time as I took with it, but it wasn’t. Instead, it felt like it helped me dip in and out more easily: lots of time passed for the characters too in between my visits to them, so it felt natural, if you see what I mean.

The time and place setting are in the title; or rather, the title of the book is the name of a photograph, taken in 1932. The story remains in Paris (with one brief sojourn to the countryside nearby), covering the years before and during the German occupation. Several characters relate events from different perspectives, including an American writer whose voice is heard through the books and articles he writes about life in Paris at that time; a Hungarian photographer in love with Paris, writing home to his parents; a French girl who is the girlfriend of the writer and then the photographer, writing a memoir which is to be destroyed upon her death; the wealthy French woman who is the photographer’s patroness, writing her own memoir; and a woman, a couple of generations later, writing the biography of the notorious Lou Villars.

Lou is at the center of this novel, although she has no first-person voice: we only know her through the eyes of others. She had an unhappy childhood; was taught to lift weights by the nuns; had a promising athletic career until her coach tried to rape her; worked at the Chameleon, a nightclub for cross-dressers; became a professional racecar driver; met and was awed by the Fuhrer; became a spy for Germany and a torturer for the Gestapo. She is a French cross-dressing lesbian athlete, passionate about France and Joan of Arc, an unhappy woman easily swayed by those who flatter her. She is both a representation of Evil and a complicated question about how a person gets that way.

Prose’s many narrators create interesting questions, too. Are any of them, in the end, reliable? (Questions about the truthfulness of one in particular will be raised in the final pages.) There are many layers to this novel: the beauty and tragedy of Paris before and after the Nazis arrive; the fallibility of human nature; the visual arts (our famous photographer does much of the symbolic work, joined occasionally by Picasso); the challenges faced when any of us seeks to represent the past.

This is a fictional story but based in part on real people. The Hungarian photographer is based on Brassai, who took the picture called “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle” which is described in the novel under the title “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932” and, obviously, serves as the keystone image of the book. The American writer is based on Henry Miller. The real people are simply starting points, though, along with the powerful, mysterious photograph which titles the novel. The story itself is an imaginative work, deeply intricate in its telling (all those narrators!), and compelling. I was intrigued, and certainly recommend Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 as enjoyable and thought-provoking. The audio version very appropriately uses various narrators for the various voices, complete with accents, and was a great way to experience the book.


Rating: 7 cigarette lighters.

Maud’s Line by Margaret Verble

A young American Indian woman’s existential questionings and daily life on an Oklahoma farm will appeal to fans of historical fiction and personal narrative.

maud's line

Early in the 20th century, the U.S. government assigned plots of land to the American Indians displaced by Oklahoma’s statehood. Maud Nail’s day-to-day life on her family’s allotment is consumed by guns, dirt and chickens. She cares for her men–a dangerous, unruly father, aptly named Mustard, and a sensitive, thin-skinned brother named Lovely–as well as the extended family whose allotments neighbor hers. They recently survived the flood of 1926-27 that covered Oklahoma and much of the Midwest, but the difficulties don’t stop there. Margaret Verble’s first novel, Maud’s Line, details the year in which Maud makes several large choices that will affect the rest of her life.

A peddler in a brilliantly blue covered wagon first captures Maud’s eye with his good looks and his books. He gives her a copy of The Great Gatsby, and she can’t stop thinking about those bobbed haircuts and dresses above the knee. Though she loves her family, Maud desperately wishes she could move on, live in a different world. But as she begins to be caught up in a nascent love affair, her family’s troubles demand her attention. Two men from the family that has long feuded with hers are murdered, and Mustard has to leave town in a hurry. Lovely falls ill, and then, more troubling still, seems to be losing his mind. And Maud’s occasional, erstwhile boyfriend then makes a claim on her, just as she is struggling with the biggest dilemma of all.

Maud’s Line is filled with evocative glimpses of violence, viscera, yearning and the brusque but communal caring of family. In her unadorned writing style, below the violence and hardship on the surface of Maud’s life, Verble crafts a story filled with nuance and quiet conflict. She exhibits a talent for characterization: each individual is carefully and distinctly fashioned, so that Lovely’s girlfriend and the members of Maud’s extended family, for example, shine brightly in even the briefest of appearances. Maud herself is finely wrought, caught between the values she’s been raised with–and the people she loves–and a hope for a different life, one with electricity and hygiene in place of dust and blood. One of the greatest strengths of Verble’s novel, set on her own family’s land allotment, is the delicate interior conflicts produced by Maud’s deceptively simple life. Propelled by its own momentum, Maud’s Line pulls the reader along until, amid daily privations and small tragedies, Maud has the chance for the first time to choose for herself what her future will hold.


This review originally ran in the June 30, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 guns.

Madeleine’s War by Peter Watson

A nuanced marriage of military history and romance, set in a secret British resistance unit during World War II.

madeleine

Peter Watson (who wrote Gifts of War under the pen name Mackenzie Ford) entertains with Madeleine’s War, a novel of World War II romance and intrigue starring fictional characters but with a historically accurate background.

Matthew fought on the ground in France with a secret British resistance unit until he suffered a severe injury. In his new role training fresh recruits, he meets Madeleine, a beautiful, talented French-Canadian woman determined to contribute to the war effort. Matthew’s job is to train Madeleine for intelligence and sabotage before she parachutes behind enemy lines. Her superior officer, he is not supposed to fall in love with her, but the two nonetheless embark upon a passionate, short-lived affair, before she is sent to France and disappears.

Despite its title, Madeleine’s War is told from Matthew’s perspective, leaving the reader as in the dark as he is after Madeleine vanishes in Nazi territory. He is then left to track her down–out of both love and duty, which sometimes conflict. The plot then twists again as Matthew is given an uncomfortable mission of his own to carry out.

Watson’s expertise as a historian lends credibility to the context of this story: in his afterword he states that the geography, training procedures, technologies and secrecy he portrays are all based on fact. Matthew and Madeleine and their colleagues are Watson’s own creations, painted with a rosy, romantic glow but also exposed to the glaring realities of war. Romance fans and war buffs will be equally pleased with the result.


This review originally ran in the June 23, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 cigarettes.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

Full disclosure: I got this tattoo, below, after reading this piece by Kingsnorth. (It’s more complicated than that, and Kingsnorth did not supply my first exposure to the green man, for the record; IMG_5964but he was a significant inspiration.) If you poke around his website, and his larger presence as a writer, you’ll see that he’s written a good deal about the Norman invasion of 1066; and now, a novel (released last year in Kingsnorth’s native Britain). But there is something different about this book: it is written in a “pseudo-language,” a hybrid between the Old English of the time in question, and the language we speak and understand today. Somewhat in the spirit of the “Landspeak” article I recently posted, Kingsnorth feels that the language in which we express a thing changes the thing being expressed: in other words, it matters.


wake

I am on board with the concept, but I confess, it would be a mistake to underestimate it. The Old English-ish language is a challenge, and casual readers will be dissuaded. It is worth the effort, however. The story inside is riveting and, yes, improved in tone by the impassioned voice of the narrator in his native tongue (or a slightly more readable version thereof). Pro tip: try reading aloud to get the full flavor, and to hear cognates come clear.

I have a few lines for you today that struck me especially, and which are almost understandable.

the fugols that sang here was the fugols i cnawan and the heofon was the heofon of my cildehood and for a small time i felt that my heorte had cum baec to where it sceolde always be. the mist cum round the secg cold as we walced saen lytel and sounds colde be hierde that was lic the sounds of my eald lands when i was still a man

Or, in my own translation,

The birds that sang here were the birds I knew, and the heaven was the heaven of my childhood, and for a small time I felt that my heart had come back to where it should always be. The mist came round the sedge, cold, as we walked saying little, and sounds could be heard that were like the sounds of my old lands, when I was still a man.

I love the sense of place and of belonging to a place – which is one of the losses of the Norman Invasion, in Kingsnorth’s telling – and the tone of mourning. Try it again in the original text. Go ahead. I know I threw you into it in the middle, but a full book of this actually comes to be quite compelling, if you can put in the effort.

Stay tuned for my positive review to come.

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

The fictional portrait of a real-life, rough-edged, hard-drinking “Mother Teresa” on New York City’s tough streets in the early 20th century.

saint mazie

Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg (The Middlesteins) brings to life a true historical figure–movie theater proprietress Mazie Phillips–as a fully realized, full-color, unlikely hero.

They called her Queen of the Bowery. She was bottle-blonde, busty, husky-voiced and crude; she was a self-described good-time girl with a gruff manner, partial to men and drink. But she was also a humanitarian, though she would never have admitted it. Attenberg’s inspired story takes the form of a historian’s fictional collection of material: entries from Mazie’s diary, excerpts from a draft of her unpublished autobiography and interviews with descendants, acquaintances and local experts on New York City’s past.

Mazie begins her diary on her 10th birthday, in 1907. She is new to New York City; her older sister, Rosie, has rescued her and the youngest, Jeanie, from domestic violence in Boston. The three sisters form an odd but lasting household with Rosie’s husband, Louis, beloved of all three. From this day forward, Mazie remains in the city, drinking through Prohibition, assisting the wounded at the Wall Street bombing in 1920, and pinching pennies to help her neighbors through the aftermath of the 1929 crash.

Saint Mazie‘s structure establishes an evocative tone of both ancient history and immediacy. Mazie’s love affairs and friendships are wrought with sensitivity and nuance; Nadine, the barely-named researcher behind the story, surfaces with rare, delightful hints to her own personality and motivations. Mazie’s life is compelling, heartrending and irresistibly paced, but it is Attenberg’s subtle storytelling decisions that make this novel unforgettable.


This review originally ran in the June 2, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 postcards.
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