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[703] Mrs. Bridge – Evan S. Connell

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” She spent a great deal of time staring into space, oppressed by the sense that she was waiting. But waiting for what? She did not know. Surely someone will call, someone will be needing her. Yet each day proceeded like the one before . . . So it was that her thoughts now and then turned deviously deeper, spiraling down and down in search of the final recess, of life more immutable than the life she had bequeathed in the birth of her children. (Ch.45, p.94)

Mrs. Bridge, first published in 1958, is an overlooked gem of American literature. Equally underrepresented is the type of its main character, the alienated upper-middle-class housewife, who is thriving in silence, passing from youth to old age. The book is made up of 117 short, themed chapters, documenting the domestic life of middle America through the eyes of Mrs. Bridge between the two wars.

Right from the off, Mrs. Bridge is slightly at odds with her circumstances. Her name for once is odd—India. Her parents must have been thinking of something else while coming up with her name. Early on, one learns that her wealthy, hard-working husband, Walter, doesn’t appear to feel any great passion towards her. But she tries her best to be a good wife and mother. She values courtesy; appearances and manner are her abiding concern. She is always concerned about the eyes that are upon her, never wanting to make trouble for anyone, ensuring her children are cared for and that she puts up neither too many nor too few Christmas decorations, so her house looks festive but not ostentatious. As befit a worrying mother, she goes overboard with her children. She renounces her son’s entering through the back door, calling it “backdoor-it is” as if it’s a disease. She’s disturbed that her daughter doesn’t want to go to college, and moves to New York to be an actress. She has adroitly steered around threatening subjects until she is confronted by a porn magazine in her son’s room.

I honestly believe half my life has been spent arranging the family schedule. (Ch.52, p.111)

Connell writes with sensitivity. For in Mrs. Bridge there’s always a nagging existential fear. She takes hold of her life by dabbling into arts, learning another language, amplifying her vocabulary, and reading books beyond her depth, and yet she has no confidence in her life. As her children grow up and leave the nest, the exquisite idleness much desired by others is driving her insane. She is both sensible and absurd at the same time.

Written from a kind of tilted, ironic angle, Mrs. Bridge is often punctuated by humor that coaxes one into feeling empathetic for her. It’s profound, wise, and above all humane. It’s also a portrait of a marriage with darker implications—one that is outwardly together and yet profoundly isolated from each other. Whereas Mr. Bridge cannot vocalize his feelings, Mrs. Bridge is a confused, lonely woman trapped by the life of leisure her husband has created for her.

246 pp. North Point Press. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Kane and Abel, Encore

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I checked in at the Booking Through Thursday blog, which is the host for a weekly book meme or blogging prompt. Here is this week’s prompt:

If you could change the ending of any book you’ve read, which would it be and how would you change it?

As per the review I posted yesterday, I would like to prolong the lives of the two titular characters in Kane and Abel, who have died with some regrets. The book spans over 60 years in the 20th century with many ups and downs, hinging on a vendetta held by the hotelier on the banker because of a loan refused by the bank during the crash of 1929, made worse by inaccurate assumptions and misunderstandings. The ending is a boot but I just wish the two old men would live longer. I learned that Jeffrey Archer actually rewrote the book for its 30th anniversary edition, which was the version I read, to make the plot tighter and with dangling carrot in every chapter.

[702] Kane and Abel – Jeffrey Archer

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” On October 29, Black Tuesday, as it came to be known, the market started to fall again . . . The truth, though few would admit it, was that every financial establishment in America was insolvent. ” (Ch.26, p.297)

Kane and Abel pitches the two title characters against the cataclysmic events of the twentieth century; circumstances render their paths intertwine in their ruthless struggle to build a fortune. The story is told in alternating narratives that concern Kane and Abel, parallel storylines in worlds apart, from their birth, the early years, the adulthood, up until the fateful day in American history on which the New York stock market crashed. It’s the financial crisis that brings about their convergence.

The old woman took the banknotes, crumpled each one into a little ball and laid them carefully in the grate. They kindled immediately. She placed twigs and small logs on top of the blazing zlotys and sat down by her fire, the best in weeks, rubbing her hands together, enjoying the warmth. (Ch.45, p.512)

William Lowell Kane and Abel Rosnovski are not brothers. They are not related. The only thing they have in common is birthday. But the circumstances by which they were born and raised were like heaven and hell. Kane is the son of a rich banker who later dies in the sinking of Titanic. Kane has shown mathematical talent and financial acumen early on, making imaginary stock investment and bucking the market. By age 21 he inherits the family estate and is invited to join the board of the bank. He’s a Harvard graduate who inherits money whose doubtful origins were safely buried under generations of respectability. If Kane was born into a life of wealth and privilege, Abel was orphaned immediately after birth and penniless. The Baron who takes a liking to the clever boy was killed by Germans as they raided the castle. Then he was thrown into Russian labor camp. In America he works his way up from a junior waiter to become the chairman of a hotel chain. Along the way he earns a BA in economics from Columbia, and strips of his Polish accent. Abel belongs to a new generation of Americans who fulfills his dream.

Archer takes reader through history with these two men and their families. Titanic, World War I, The Great Depression, McCarthyism, and all the way through the 60s. Lives, deaths, politics, finance, power struggles, love, hatred, empire building, and revenge saturate this novel. It is, after all, the story of two men, from totally different social classes, driven by their inspirations of success, wealth and power who are caught up in a life-long feud. It’s a vendetta held by the hotelier on the banker because of a loan refused by the bank during the crash of 1929, made worse by inaccurate assumptions and misunderstandings. Ensued are varying levels of adversity, setbacks, and competition. They are arrogant but not bad people—they are hardworking and loyal to their causes. The book is wildly readable and captivating, with each chapter ending in cliffhanger. The book might become predictable toward the end, but Archer holds me riveted.

637 pp. St. Martin. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

“Common Core Reading”

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Interesting four-part series on NPR. The Common Core State Standards gauge kids’ reading aptitude by how well they can read and understand designated materials. My question: if the readings assigned are beyond kids’ ability, how are they to sustain the interest to read, let alone find the main idea and arguments of a text. No kids are equal in their reading ability (learning ability in general) when they come to school. Some are more advanced if their parents have encouraged reading at home. I am an advocate for a guidance approach that teaches skills and strategies in reading, at least at the beginning. Through interaction with teacher, this approach would benefit the kids who are behind and keep them from being frustrated. The goal is to engage students by connecting what they are reading with their personal experiences.

Another issue is the difference in reading level within the same grade level. Teachers would use a technique called leveled instruction: an approach to literacy in which students spend the vast majority of their time in a text that is at their reading level, even if it’s below their grade level. What entails are textbooks that include multiple versions of the same text. But this new shift in Common Core Reading Standard calls for less leveled instruction, and for students to read more nonfiction.

This whole Common Core Reading debate is thrilling to me. I didn’t grow up in America and the first year of school I attended here was 9th grade. English is not my native language but had been the language of instruction in school back in Hong Kong—think of English immersion while you speak Chinese on a day-to-day basis. When I started 9th grade here, I’d always read above grade level, and people involved in the gifted programs sometimes try to figure out why, and my answer was always simple: I just read. Dickens, Salinger, Steinbeck, D.H. Lawrence, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Ann Rynd… Notes I occasionally wrote down, but never kept a journal. I’m indebted to my English teacher who didn’t believe in formulaic book report that addresses set points, like note the setting and characters. My education in reading is complemented by free-form essays exploring themes and relation to contemporary artists. I think forcing kids to read all the same books and then, even worse, telling them what to make of it and how to interpret it sap reading of its joy. When reading becomes a bland chore, who would want to read?

[701] False Impression – Jeffrey Archer

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” Jack sat back in the cab seat and tried to work out what Petrescu’s next move might be. He still couldn’t make up his mind if she was a professional criminal or a complete amateur. And where did Tina Forster fit into the equation? Was it possible that Fenston, Leapman, Petrescu and Forster were all working together? (Ch.26, p.202)

Lady Victoria Wentworh was found dead in her bedroom, on the day before the sale of her family heirloom, a famous Van Gogh painting, becomes final. Rumor has it that after her father’s death, Victoria was left with considerable debts. The only plausible to salvage the family estate is to sell the painting. False Impression involves an international conspiracy to nick a Van Gogh self-portrait with a bandaged ear. Victoria is the latest victim of a series of murders that share one thing in common: she has large outstanding loans with Fenston Finance in New York City.

Bryce Fenston is more a fiend than a connoisseur in paintings by great masters. His adviser, Anna Petrescu, is surprised that he has already had the painting shipped to New York before Lady Victoria has the chance to act on her recommendations. Then Anna realizes that Fenston is more interested in having the Van Gogh than clearing the English aristocrat’s debts. Due to the 9/11 attack, all US airports were closed. The plane carrying the painting has to return to London, and Anna has to outpace Fenston to get her hands on the painting.

False Impression follows her cat-and-mouse chase around the world from New York during the tragic events of 9/11, to England, Romania, Hong Kong, Japan and back. Maintaining a fairly steady pace, the novel combines criminal conspiracy, a ruthless former Ceaușescu bodyguard turned assassin, a Japanese art collector, a Romanian art professor, and an opportunistic banker who amasses wealth by swindling clients out of inheritance. It’s more a crime thriller than a mystery, since the murderer is revealed early on, and is on Anna’s trail.

The book is highly convoluted, promised at every turn of the page are many twists. Anna’s conviction has me riveted as she constantly outsmarts, outwits her enemies, but only narrowly. Deception and decoy abound. It’s also making fun of the ignorance of those would amass arts pieces without knowing arts.

512 pp. St. Martin’s. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

“Sleepy Beauty”

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Birthday presents continue to stream in. The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty trilogy boxset is, to me, a gesture of humor from a good friend. First, I have never read Anne Rice because I’m a fan of neither romance nor vampire. This trilogy is written written under the name A.N. Roqelaure, rather obscure and sophisticated. Who would have guessed my belated introduction to this landmark author would be erotica fiction? Straight erotica fiction. At least it’s Sleeping Beauty, like a fairy tale figure. It is in fact a twist on the fairy tale. I have mixed feelings looking at this boxset, love the simple design of it. I’m both tickled with interest and dubious because of the subject matter. Fingers crossed.

Overlooked

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It must be the time of the year—change of weather and holidays around the corner—both of my book groups pick a mystery and crime thriller for the month. On my own I continue to peruse literature. The Guardian suggests some overlooked classics that pique my interest. Over the weekend I finished The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers. Without reading the introduction, I know it’s one of McCullers’ signature subject about a loner. It’s a portrait of a 12-year-old girl, a social outcast, who agonizes to find her niche in the society and to leave behind her hometown. Her idea of escape is to go on honey together with her soon-to-be-married brother Jarvis and his fiance Janice.

The next reading adventure will be a book of which I have neither heard of the author nor the title. Wallace Stegner, whose Crossing to Safety has been one of my all-time favorites, said Mrs. Bridge is “a hell of a portrait . . . she’s as real and as pathetic and as sad as any character I have read in a long time.” Why haven’t I encountered this book? It’s a social satire that has dark implications; but these implications are more puckish than serious.

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