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[793] A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler

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“But it has occurred to me, on occasion, that our memories of our loved one might not be the point. Maybe the point is their memories—all that they take away with them. What if heaven is just a vast consciousness that the dead return to? And their assignment is to report on the experiences they collected during their time on earth.” (Ch.7, 248)

The book revolves around a Baltimore family and their house over four generations. Tyler has woven defining moments of each generation with flashbacks, giving us a story of a family that could be any of ours. The novel opens in the present, with Abbey and Red Whitshank. It’s Abby, a retired social worker; Red, who inherited his father’s construction and their grown-up children reader gets to know best as the family slowly disintegrates. Abby by far captures one’s attention and she is the glue of the family. She is this self-denigrating, self-aggrandizing embarrassment of a mother one hopes will never show up at the school function. She breathes down on her children’s necks.

The book begins and ends with the miscreant, Denny, the prodigal son, who calls home to inform his parents he’s gay. (He’s not.) He’s a college dropout, irregularly employed, and single parent. No one in the family can cope with his existence. His sister, Amanda, nails it, in a moment of exasperation, that she shall not be forgiven for “consuming every last little drop of our parents’ attention and leaving nothing for the rest of us.” Denny complains his parents never paid him any attention, but Abby has always cared for him the most. Even Tyler has a soft spot for him, and she renders him more lovable than he is forgivable.

When Red has a heart attack and Abbey becomes dithery, the family converges to take over, but that ironically reveals fractures within the family and reignites old jealousies. The dutiful son Stem, who is not even a Whitshank by birth, moves in to care for the aging parents with his judicious wife Nora and children in tow. Denny’s sudden arrival arouses new tension and leads to brew of guilt and resentment. Abby and Red’s family is the bread and butter of the novel as this drama plays out, but Tyler digs deeper in the history.

The origin of the Whitshank house is how Tyler plays against the American dream, the dark side of which is the falsehood and its heart. The house was initially commissioned by a rich businessman, but Junior, Red’s father, who is hired to build it, set his heart on the place the minute he sees the blueprints, crafts it to his own preference and eventually acquires it by some mild chicanery. He was also entrapped by a teenage girl who bides her time and eventually becomes his wife. Junior’s daughter Merrick rises above her station and breaks into the high society—and a loveless, worn-out marriage. It was Abby, in her unflinching way, even at a young age, who confronts Junior that he resents his snooty neighbors but apes their ways.

This is the kind of novel that chronicles minor calamities and daily happenings that shape a family, any family. It deals with what makes a family at root: parental love and a sense of belonging. The parts on Abby and Red’s family are more tightly written and capturing than the others. But overall it is an absorbing read.

465 pp. Vintage UK. Pocket paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[792] All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

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“For portions of every day, she manages to lose herself in realms of memory; the faint impressions of the visual world before she was six, when Paris was like a vast kitchen, pyramids of cabbages and carrots everywhere . . . ” (325)

The story, told in flashbacks, is set in Germany and France before and during the German occupation of France. Marie-Laure becomes blind when she is six; she lives with her father, a locksmith and keeper of the keys at the National Museum of Natural History, in Paris when the novel begins in 1934. There, hidden, in its vaults for the past two hundred years, is an accursed gem, a greyish-blue sea diamond with a red hue at its center, that will bring misfortune to its possessor.

Marie-Laure’s father is also the creator of ingenious puzzles and miniatures—of the streets and houses of Paris. He makes wooden model of the neighborhood so Marie can memorize it by touch and navigate her way. He hones her sense of touch by placing unexpected objects in her hands. The intriguing miniatures teach her, using fingers as eyes, how to navigate her way around the city. She develops a love for reading; ultimately she survives the destruction and desolation of the Occupation through the books she can read in braille up in the attic of her reclusive great-uncle’s house in Saint Malo.

Parallel to Marie-Laure’s story is that of Werner Pfennig, who and his sisters are orphans living in the German mining town. He has gift for science, and the intracacies of radios in particular. His talent wins him a spot in the brutal academy of Hitler Youth, which trains him to become an elite cadre for the Third Reich. His schooling is evidence of both ambition and brutality of the Nazi national psyche.

The story ziplines back and forth, until Marie-Laure and Werner are converging in saint Malo, on the coast of Brittany, as Werner is probing for a radio signal emitting from her house. Her father has been entrusted with the gem and is arrested. Werner is given the task to locate radio transmission, which brings him to the island, where Marie’s great-uncle Etienne uses his radio-transmitter on behalf of the Resistance.

All the Light We Cannot See is a literary feat: mixing fable,, nature, and mechanical inventions. Doerr’s prose style is lyrical, operatic and relentless, with an attentiveness to details. It is an emotionally plangent tale of morality. As the children’s paths converge, Doerr has created nearly unbearable suspense. Every piece of the back story reveals information that changes the merging narrative with significance. There is this kill-or-be-killed theme, the morality of doing what is right and not what power is bestowed upon one to do.

530 pp. Scribner. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[784] The Starboard Sea – Amber Dermont

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“For so long, I’d feared that I was hanging on to Aidan, on to all my thoughts and memories of her because of how our night together changed the meaning of all my nights with Cal. But I understood now that it didn’t change anything. I loved them both. I’d opened my life up to each of them.” (Ch.15, 297)

Jason Prosper grows up in the exclusive world of Manhattan penthouses, old-boy boarding schools, and summer estates. He’s pruned to be the alpha-male, continuing his father’s work in banking. But the talented sailor maintains a healthy disdain for the trappings of affluence and prefers to sail with his beat friend Cal, who later committed suicide. Devastated by the loss and wrought with grief, Jason transfer to Bellingham Academy for his senior year. Through the course of a single harrowing school year, the novel follows Jason and his inner emotions and secrets, as he tries to make sense of his friend’s death.

What made me like her? Her pain. Her mystery. I was drawn to her because she reminded me of Cal. I was drawn to her because she reminded me of myself. (Ch.5, 86)

Coincidence and serendipity bring Aidan and Jason together. Though off to a wrong footing at the first place, the two cultivate a deep friendship as they confide in each other not-so-innocent secrets, trying to heal their wounded hearts. They absorb the hideous weight of each other’s confession, and come to self-forgiveness. Jason is a likable, appealing first-person narrator that reminds me of Nick Carraway (The Great Gatsby), observing from a distance the terrible things privileged teenagers do to each other knowing wealth can buy silence. Hazing. Bullying. Debauchery. The steady, restrained unmasking of Jason’s history, in particular his powerful guilt over the death of Cal, which haunts him continuously, keeps the pages turning. As if the loss of a best friend is not intense enough to make one grows up, the destruction of a winter storm brings yet another upheaval in Jason’s life, which forces him to make sense of a secret buried by the boys he considers his friends.

Dermont compares adolescence to sailing a boat into the wind. She adeptly charts the fine calibrations of teenage love, shame, belonging, and the agony of coming of age. The book is an in-depth examination of abused class privilege, in which hazing rituals, which require secrecy and compliance, are as dangerous as the ruthless machinations of the truly powerful and wealthy parents. Despite falling in with a gang of rich indulgent kids who practice delinquency almost like a religion, Jason comes out unscathed and a better person. The book is a well-written debut that explores the balance of riches and ethics, in particular how privilege supersedes societal structures and the inner voice of one’s conscience.

308 pp. St. Martin Press. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[778] The Paradise – Émile Zola

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“She had been obliged to assist to the bitter end at this invincible work of life which requires death as its continual seed. She no longer struggled, she accepted this law of combat . . . she herself had been caught in the wheel-work of the machine.” (Ch. XIII, 393)

Zola’s 1883 novel that chronicles the life and extravagant growth of a fictional department store feels very modern, bearing a striking relevance to our consumerism today. Although it’s a love story, the book is quite a treasure trove for feminists and cultural critics, as it captures the social psyche of French people, women in particular, in their reception to the ambitious capitalistic endeavor of a department store, which drag the women out of their home into the public space.

Doesn’t Paris belong to the women, and don’t the women belong to us. (Ch. XI, 318)

The novel starts out conventionally enough, with a country girl’s arrival in Paris at the age of 20, with two younger brothers in tow. Denise Baudu’s parents are dead; she hopes her uncle, a draper, would provide work for her. But his business, as well as other small shops, have suffered tremendously from the opening of a large store across the street, the Ladies’ Paradise, which continues to expand and drive others out of business by cutting down prices. Denise accepts a probational, commission-only position as a saleswoman in the dress department, where for months other girls gang up to deprive her of sales, and ridicule her for her mild, submissive manner, and her lack of sophistication.

As one might have imagined, Denise’s career in Ladies’ Paradise is one from hell. It’s your Cinderella story set in retails. Life and trade, economic disaster and triumph teem about her. As small shops’ attempt to compete with the ever-expanding department store proves a dismal failure, Octave Mouret’s emporium has so captured the imagination of Parisian women that that take up the place by a storm, camping there as if they are in a conquered country. They even believe Mouret’s goods are more superior. To shop at Ladies’ Paradise has become the quo status. Amid all the commercial competition, the treachery and rivalry of saleswomen, the schemes of salesmen to oust their boss, Denise remains true to her values.

The Paradise is a rich tapestry of Parisian life in a period when the idea of a department store is a far-fetched idea that the banks are not willing to invest. There’s also the mandatory upstairs-downstairs struggle through the newcomer Denise, who against all odds manages to conquer the entire staff with her tenderness and modesty. In lavish detail and myopic vision Zola captures the greedy customers, the gossiping staff, and the vain obsession with image, fashion, and gratification.

438 pp. Penguin. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[774] In a Strange Room – Damon Galgut

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“He’s aware that he’s engaged again in that most squalid of activities, using up time, but the journey hasn’t ended where he wanted it to, it has frayed out instead into endless ambiguities and nuances, like a path that divides and divides endlessly, growing fainter all the time.” (The Lover, p.141-2)

In a Strange Room, flitting between third- and first-person narrative, is a work poised between memoir and fiction. The book is divided into three sections of about the same length and each tells an ill-fated journey undertaken by one Damon, who is presumably the author himself. The three parts are titled “The Follower”, “The Lover”, and “The Guardian”, which refer to how Damon fails the respective role in life. The book is lyrical but grim.

In the first part, Damon is in Greece when he encounters Reiner, a long-haired German who is assured of his beauty. They keep in touch and decide to go on a challenging trek together in Lesotho, a small, inhospitable country situated within the interior of South Africa. But they have a fallout due to Reiner’s bossiness. The homoerotic friendship inevitably disintegrates.

The second journey takes Damon to Zimbabwe where he meets a French and a pair of Swiss twins, who invited him to come along to Tanzania. Despite of the unforeseen complication and a lack of visa, Damon accepts the offer because he is smitten with Jerome, who has “a beauty that is almost shocking.” Yet Damon, only to his deep regret later, flees this relationship as eagerly as he runs into it. By the time the third section begins, reader gets the sense that he is a hopeless case in relationship.

The third section sees Damon as a middle-aged man who is still dissatisfied by his inability to engage meaningfully with others. The alienated traveler goes on wandering not because he is curious about new places but that he has to keep himself going to avoid meddling in his problems. The trip to take his suicidal friend along to India is a wrong decision from the beginning. She has an overdose in India. This wrenching journey repeats his previous experience, only with greater shock and emphasis of his impotence. There is a sense of timelessness in these isolated journeys, and the lone traveler is far from his time and history—pretty much out of touch from reality. He is far more adept at crossing geographical boundaries than emotional ones. The book is written in a way that reader is encourage to interact with Damon’s thoughts. Sometimes it’s engaging but it can be frustrating.

207 pp. Europa Editions. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[772] The Paying Guests- Sarah Waters

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“And as Frances watched . . . something odd began to happen to her. First her heart started to flutter, then she felt a srt of giving any, around it: a caving in, like the slither of sand through the waist of an hour-glass. It was as if her blood, her muscles, her organs, were steadily dissolving . . . Now Frances’s face was tingling as if growing numb . . . She wanted to be sick.” (Ch.14, p.470)

In postwar 1922 London, the widowed Mrs. Wray and her spinsterish daughter, Frances, have been obliged to admit lodgers out of necessity due to the straitened poverty. Into their genteel south London house moves a young, gaudy couple with their gramophone and colorful clothing. The new living situation signifies the changing social dynamics brought forth by the war. One gets the sense that Waters uses the domestic novel to grapple with the intricacies of a broken civic order and the reconfiguring of gender and social roles—until the focus shifts to a more personal, intimate level.

The arrival of the brash Barbers has unsettled the Wray household. There is persistent undercurrent undercurrent of class awkwardness and intergenerational conflict. Frances reflects that she will never be used to the noises but she needs the money to drive out of debt. Waters captures very neatly Mrs. Wray’s pained denial of the extent to which she has come down in the world; but this embarrassing reality manifests in Frances’s daily weariness and frustration at menial work around the house. The Barbers’ intrusion, which almost feels like an intrusion, depicts such dismantling of social barrier, as people traditionally separated by money and status find their lives intermingling under one roof. But the delicate domestic tension soon gives away to more personal and intimate entanglement. Frances, still smarting from the collapse of her wartime love affair with a fellow suffragette, is drawn to the lively Lilian Barber, who reveals that her marriage is less than happy.

Every day we slip a bit further into it . . . We’d somehow got into the habit of spending time together almost in secret. It’s what we do with the time that’s changed. (Ch.7, p.238)

The developing romance, to my slight dismay, is an unexpected departure from what Waters has set out to do at the beginning of the book. The one thing that reminds me of the social constraint theme is the women’s invisibility, which is crucial to the twists and turns of the ensuing soap opera. No one appreciates the lesbian subtext of the situation; and the pressure that remorse and moral responsibility on their love affair is unleashed with exquisite pathos. Maybe Waters wants to be sarcastic, in creating this extreme outcome, about how society is blind to the same-sex love. The book is simmering with suspense, and one can feel the full of fear and anxiety in these women.

566 pp. Riverhead/Penguin. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[770] Empire of the Sun – J.G. Ballard

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“Jim stared at his pallid hands. He knew that he was alive, but at the same time he felt as dead as Mr. Maxted. Perhaps his souls, instead of leaving his body, had died inside his head?” (Ch.32, p.293)

Empire of the Sun is an autobiographical novel of World War II in China. It’s the story of a young boy’s search in vain for his parents in Shanghai after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It is based on events which Ballard himself witnessed and suffered while interned as a boy in Shanghai from 1941 to 1945.

There is a triumph of truthfulness of tone to this book. It’s not about frontline combat but concentrating on prisoners’ experience in the camp through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy. Separated from his pants, Jim first camped out in his own empty house and then in the deserted house of his parents’ friends’ house. Eventually he’s interned for four years in the camp of Lunghua, where he performs a variety of chores under the direction of a Dr. Randsome.

But he had outgrown them and made other friends—Dr. Randsome, Basie, and the American seamen in E Block, with their ancient prewar copies of Reader’s Digest and Popular Mechanics that Jim devoured. (Ch.20, p.176)

War is war, as Ballard convinces reader. There is nothing admirable about it, even for the winning side. There are no heroes, no heroics, just war as the normal condition, and the only battle that to survive. There’s the battle against diseases and hunger. There’s the constant fear of reprisal. The driving force to live, at least for Jim, is the hope to be with his parents again. Maintaining a civil relation to the Japanese guards gets him some perks but it doesn’t ease the threat of death. Aside from the pestilent living condition, food is depleting at a rate faster than that at which people are dying. Ironically, Jim is at the mercy of some Japanese soldiers for food, while the cubicle-mates, an English couple, deprived him of his food rations.

He sucked on his knuckles, glad for even the taste of his pus, then tore stems of grass from the bank and chewed the acid leaves. (Ch.30, p.272)

This book has the authority of experience: a novel of clear moral purpose and power, but written in a detached, matter-of-fact manner like journalist reporting. Ballard didn’t write about this experience until some forty years after the war. He reflected that for the rest of his life, he found it difficult to leave food on his plate after the Lunghua years. This is perhaps the worst consequence of war—surviving and yet traumatized.

375 pp. Washington Press. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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