Tag Archives: WWII

On Sara Gruen’s “At the Water’s Edge”

14 Apr

At the Water's Edge [2015] by Sara Gruen

At the Water’s Edge [2015] by Sara Gruen

Damsels in distress, bearded men with thick accents, giant mythical monsters, and a backdrop of worldwide warfare. No, I’m not talking about the new season of Game of Thrones. I’m talking about the newest novel from the author of Water for Elephants. I’m talking about a young America woman who gets dragged to Scotland during World War II to hunt down the Loch Ness Monster in Sara Gruen’s At the Water’s Edge, which, aside from the gore and the patricide, is practically the same as Game of Thrones anyway.

Rich kids Ellis and Maddie Hyde and their ever-present third wheel Hank Boyd tear through the upper crust parties of Philadelphia, drinking the best champagne and mixing it with the best drugs. But all the pill cocktails in the world can’t drown Ellis’s feelings of inadequacy after being denied enlistment due to his colorblindness. After a scathing confrontation with Ellis’s father that threatens to cut him off from his inheritance, he takes action. Since the best kind of action always involves hunting down cryptids to clear the family name of horrifying, public shame, the three sail off to Scotland to find the infamous Loch Ness Monster. Maddie Hyde narrates as she witnesses Hank’s and her husband’s desperate attempt to prove a myth. She is an unwilling passenger on this wild ride, but, as Maddie is quick to learn, she is as complicit as the two men: they are invaders of the already war-torn lives of the villagers.

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness

What’s that out behind Urquhart Castle? Is it …? Could it be …? Is that Yeezus? (Photo from “jan zeschky“)

Gruen poignantly describes the era’s ultra-rich and their obliviousness to warfare and suffering. Behind an insurmountable fortress of wealth, the Hydes and their companion are offensively ignorant of the actual turmoil around them. As Ellis and Hyde immerse themselves in their monster-hunting adventures, Maddie’s eyes are opened to reality and her heart changed by the people around her. She soon realizes that–whether or not a massive sea creature lurks beneath the black surface of the loch–a very real domestic monster lurks under the preening surface of her increasingly volatile husband. If only there were a muscular, bearded Scotsman around to save her from it all ….

As fun as a solid, beardy Highland romance sounds, AtWE includes a cast of extremely problematic male characters. (Maybe later, if you’re not doing anything, we can discuss the validity of arguing for male characters’ depth in romance novels that appear to be written for straight women.) Ellis’s growing manifestations of violence and vileness leave little room for his humanity. Gruen shies away from fully exploring his inner demons, of which there are many, abandoning him instead to a fully realized antagonist, who is present in this novel solely to be defeated by the powers of Goodness and True Manliness. Angus Grant provides that stark, haloed relief to Ellis’s blackness. Though the man is gruff and pithy to the point of rudeness, Angus is honorable beyond measure and seems incapable of fault. Both Ellis and Angus are cheated out of their humanity, and seem to only find a place in this novel to be way points for Maddie’s life. This is the type of novel that distorts straight women’s definitions of romance, and, incidentally, for the straight men who presumably want relationships with those straight women.

Milkman among ruins of London

Life carries on despite the desolation meted out by German bombers. (Photo from “Jhayne“)

The art Gruen performs well is toeing the line between mainstream fiction and romance paperback. Some brief lines about classism and a backdrop of one of the most horrific wars of recorded history grounds an otherwise fluffy plot, but one more shirtless Highlander, and we might have needed alternate cover art by Harlequin Enterprises. I tease, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a little romance in brogue. AtWE is predictable in the best kind of way: everything you want to happen happens. Every foreshadowing comes true and every dream is fulfilled. It’s the type of book that hoards come to love because it scratches an itch, and it scratches it thoroughly.

Read It: At the Water’s Edge makes for the perfect read when you’re looking for a good intrigue and saucy romance on that spring break cruise. The historical period of 1940’s Britain makes for a picturesque setting and Sara Gruen is an expert at weaving a compelling, entertaining story of love lost and won.

Don’t Read It: You may not want to venture into the loch’s icy waters with Gruen if you, maybe, have a severe allergy to predictable plots and overwrought tropes. AtWE won’t make you think or astound you with its creativity; it’s purely fun and games with just enough heavy themes to keep the book solidly in the literature section of book stores.

Similar Books: Amy Bloom’s most recent novel Lucky Us tells the story of two sisters struggling through WWII-era American and England. There story crosses countries and decades as the sisters learn new definitions of love and family. I suppose I should also recommend Sara Gruen’s claim to fame, Water for Elephants, though I can’t vouch for anything other than the film adaptation starring the marvelous Christoph Waltz. You can’t say no to this face.

Sara Gruen

Sara Gruen (Photo from Goodreads)

On Amy Bloom’s “Lucky Us” and Amy Bloom Live

21 Oct
Lucky Us

Lucky Us

Apparently, I needed a six-week hiatus from all things book-related, but you better believe I’m back now, despite the glorious initiation of the NFL regular season. (Just don’t expect any blog posts on Sunday nights.) I can’t think of a better author to get me off my lazy ass than Amy Bloom, with her powerful, imagistic storytelling and her epic whirlwind plots. On August 4 at the Seattle Public Library, Bloom read from her newest novel Lucky Us and immediately hooked me on her quiet authority. She filled the room with her presence before she even read a word, and when she did start reading, the author of Away–nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award–reminded me why I love her stories.

In Lucky Us, half-sisters Eva and Iris work out their tumultuous love-hate relationship with World War II-era America as their backdrop. Eva’s story begins when her mother leaves her on the doorstep of her father and half-sister, and she narrates her life as she knows it: being the shadow of the captivating, horrible, hilarious characters around her. The narrative alternates by chapter–from Eva’s first-person perspective to the letters from Iris years into the future to the close third-person perspectives of secondary characters–as the sisters and their makeshift family travel from coast to coast back again, picking up and losing members along the way.

Fireside Chat

Eva, like many of her fellow Americans, spends her days entranced by the voice of President Franklin Roosevelt in his Fireside Chat.

Here are the three things you need to know about Amy Bloom:

1) Her greatest strength is writing incredibly three-dimensional characters. With Bloom’s background in psychology, she shows that she knows people. None of her characters are perfect, but they are all relatable. They are all believable. They are all real people. In the reading she gave in Seattle on August 4, she said, “The goal for me isn’t to create characters. The goal for me is to create human beings.” In the short length of the novel, Bloom creates a plethora of human beings. None of them seem to be very likable, even the passive, apathetic Eva, but something can be said for creating a unlikable human beings really, really well.

2) Bloom believes “World War II is where you saw the seeds of change begin to crack,”  and that belief led to her extensive research of the state of a country on the brink of yet another global war. From era-specific music to the lure of Hollywood, from the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the internment Japanese- and German-Americans, Bloom sets a solid historical foundation for her sweeping family epic.

Manzanar

One character finds himself

3) For Bloom, novel-writing is like a race against time and space. She has to cover as much ground and as many years as she possibly can, and she’s only got 250 pages to do it! While her short story style is concise–pithy even–and jam-packed with content, Bloom’s novels feel plot development on steroids. Lucky Us begins in Eva’s youth. She is an abandoned daughter, a younger sibling in the shadow of her flippant, teenage half-sister, but by the end of the novel, decades have passed, and everything has changed. It may feel as if Bloom writes in generalizations because years pass in a single paragraph, or characters travel cross-country in half a sentence. But truthfully, Bloom’s prose is so efficient and terse that she doesn’t need a hundred pages to describe a road trip.

SPL

Bloom is as succinct and impactful in person as she is in her writing. At her reading in Seattle this summer, she established herself as an expert on people and an expert storyteller.

Read this book if … you enjoy historical fiction, character-based stories, and/or American epics. There are many things Bloom excels at, but my favorite is her apparent love and respect for the American epic.

Don’t read this book if … you’re a sucker for details. Bloom doesn’t care much for those. She’s a brilliant character sketch artist. She’s genius at the long game. But her broad brush strokes aren’t for everyone.

This book is like … Bloom’s first novel Away in its scope and similar content. Away tells the story of Lillian Leyb, a young, first-generation immigrant to the United States. Lillian embarks on a cross-country journey from New York to Alaska in order to be reunited with her daughter who was separated from Lillian and left in Russia. Lucky Us also reminds me of A View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro. The Nobel Prize-winner Munro writes mostly short stories, as does Bloom, and both authors’ attention to history and epic perspective feel extraordinarily similar. One major difference is Bloom’s tendency toward the romantic and Munro’s tendency toward the understatement. Both are excellent.

Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom has been nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. All to say, she’s a badass.

 

On Gail Tsukiyama’s “The Samurai’s Garden”

7 Oct
The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama explores the lives of Matsu, Sachi, and Kenzo–three old friends sharing a tragic past–through the eyes of  a young Chinese man named Stephen.

I’m back, bitches! Two-month reading hiatus, be damned. Thank God for book club for keeping me honest and keeping me reading, because I was going to a dark, book-less place that consisted only of mind-numbing white collar work and mind-numbing Skyriming. Needless to say, I won’t be making my goal of reading 70 books this year (unless I decide to start working my way through the 52-book Magic Tree House series), but I will be finishing the year on a strong note, starting with Gail Tsukiyama’s brief but impactful novel The Samurai’s Garden.

The Samurai’s Garden is told from the diary of a young man from Hong Kong in the late 1930s. Stephen returns home from school to recuperate from tuberculosis, only to find the dense Chinese city of his childhood suffocating and alien. He leaves for his family’s summer home in the Japanese coastal city of Tarumi, and in the solitude and peacefulness of the village, Stephen begins to heal in more ways than one. He sets out to bond with the summer home’s long time groundskeeper, Matsu, and begins a journey of discovering the heartbreaking and mysterious past of the gardener and his two childhood friends. As Stephen pieces together the story of Matsu, Sachi, and Kenzo, the Japanese Imperial Army marches its way through China, leaving in its wake havoc and death. Tsukiyama’s characters all find solace in their elaborate gardens of blossoms and stone–extensions of life beyond the tragedies that shape their lives.

Matsu spends all his time in the summer home garden. Stephen quickly learns that Matsu is devoted to something greater than just cultivating his flowers and fish pond.

Matsu spends all his time in the summer home garden. Stephen quickly learns that Matsu is devoted to something greater than just cultivating his flowers and fish pond.

As Stephen regains his vigor for life under Matsu’s quiet, unassuming care, he returns also to his true passion: painting. Stephen speaks and writes like a painter–describing the garden and Tarumi life in a palette of colors and reflected light and subtle lines. Tsukiyama’s prose is a lovely portrayal of both Stephen’s painterly observations and the delicate tranquility of the characters’ lives. Hidden in that same prose, though, is the deep sadness of Matsu’s and Sachi’s stories, and the volatile elements of war and pestilence. Side by side with the growing garden and peace of Tarumi are the lingering illness Stephen battles, the growing unrest in Japan, and the affliction that Sachi and her fellow villagers endure.

In the mountain village above Tarumi, Stephen slowly unveils Matsu's hidden second life and learns why the elderly gardener never left town to follow greater dreams.

In Yamaguchi, the hidden mountain village above Tarumi, Stephen slowly unveils Matsu’s hidden second life and learns why the elderly gardener never left town to follow greater dreams.

In a story about uncovering mysteries, TSG certainly presented some heartbreaking revelations. Tsukiyama’s understated style helps deliver the blows of Matsu’s tragic past in what feels like a distinctly Japanese way. I couldn’t help but think of Kazuo Ishiguro’s prose: a steady wash of waves that carries with it torrents of emotion. But as the book drew to a close, the shocking revelations kept coming, one after another. The blows felt tedious, and because they were tedious, they felt contrived. Other than this slight bit of melodrama, it’s difficult to find fault with Tsukiyama’s obvious knack for storytelling and her evil gift for making me want to cry-read for 100+ pages.

Read this book if … you enjoy gut-wrenching, World War II-era fiction. The Imperial Army’s invasion of China is a mere backdrop to the story unfolding in Tarumi, but the historical context is firmly set, adding to the beautiful but tenuous peace of Stephen’s retreat.

Don’t read this book if … your version of tragic romance requires Atonement-style sexy times and beautiful young people. TSG is a story of lost opportunity and youth, but tragic and romantic all the same.

This book is like … Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, a similar story of lives full of regret, of youth and opportunity lost, of the intense sorrow of unrequited love. TSG also strongly reminded me of the film (I haven’t read the book yet) The Painted Veil because of the era, the quasi-romance fraught with regret, and element of tragic illness.

Gail Tsukiyama

Gail Tsukiyama has written several successful novels, all within a similar context as TSG, which is considered her finest work.

 

On Ismail Kadare’s “The Fall of the Stone City”

9 Dec
The English translation of The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare was published in 2013.

The English translation of The Fall of the Stone City by Ismail Kadare was published in 2013.

The first book I have read after a whole month’s (a WHOLE MONTH’S!) hiatus was Ismail Kadare’s The Fall of the Stone City, a choice made by my book club. A couple of confessions here: I probably wouldn’t have read this book if not for my book club, and I probably would have disliked it if anyone in my book club had liked it.

The whole reason why I wanted to participate in a book club was to expand my reading horizons. My tendency to read books based on New York Times or NPR or Time Magazine reading lists gives me a fairly narrow view of the literary world, so I always appreciate the nudge to get out of my limited, Ameri-centric reading habits. Kadare’s novel–originally written in his native language of Albanian–approaches a familiar subject from an unfamiliar, distinctly un-American (also, un-Western European) perspective. The Fall of the Stone City is the story of Gjirokastër, a small Albanian town caught in the sites of the Italian, German, and Russian empires during the second World War, a town that spends more time gossiping about what their neighbors are eating for dinner than caring which tyrant rules their lives, a town trying to stay grounded in a time of rapidly shifting currents. In this town are two men, both surgeons and both, coincidentally, with the last name of Gurameto. Because of these two similarities, the Drs. Gurameto–dubbed “Big” and “Little” by the townspeople–are inextricably tied to each other. Tumult meets the stone city of Gjirokastër, not when Mussolini breaks ties with Hitler and the Nazi Army invades, but when Big Dr. Gurameto hosts German officers in his home for a mysterious dinner party. History battles myth, truth battles half truth, and a Communist inquiry into Big Dr. Gurameto’s night with the Nazis transforms memory into madness. 

Here's Gjirokastër post-madness. It's probably pretty similar to Gjirokastër pre-madness, but believe me. Shit goes down.

Here’s Gjirokastër post-madness. It’s probably pretty similar to Gjirokastër pre-madness, but believe me. In The Fall of the Stone City, shit goes down.

It all looks grim on paper, but Kadare’s lighthearted prose–full of so many quips sometimes I thought I was reading Douglas Adams or Pratchet, maybe–creates a mood that’s guiltily funny. One isn’t supposed to laugh at invading armies, oppressed peoples, and torture at the hands of fervent, deranged, police bullies. Kadare plays with those feelings of guilt and propriety, challenging the way we read history and the way we understand reality. The most enjoyable part of this book for me was the thin line Kadare walked between humor and horror, between magical realism and psychological thriller. Big Dr. Gurameto finds himself in deeper and deeper trouble with the authorities, and by default Little Dr. Gurameto gets dragged along with him. The identities of both men are at stake, and all hell breaks loose. And by, “all hell breaks loose,” I mean, “things get really confusing.”

There are no flying cats in The Fall of the Stone City, but I think Dali really captures that whole "WTF, mate?" sentimentality.

There are no flying cats in The Fall of the Stone City, but I think Dali really captures that whole “WTF, mate?” sentimentality.

Kadare does, however, sacrifice plot and character development to squeeze in his lines of black humor in this regrettably brief novel. The strongest character of the book isn’t Big or Little Dr. Gurameto, but the stone city itself. Gjirokastër is described as a collective, a city without a stable history, “inscrutable as a sphinx.” Its houses are called “ladies in stone,” and its ladies are called “the city’s hidden face, its soul, its exact reflection.” Anyone can see Kadare’s love (or at least obsession) with Gjirokastër, which was his birthplace, and his passion shows in his writing, making the city the fullest character of the novel. This is hardly a bad thing, and I can think of at least two other books I loved whose main character was a city/place (The Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino and 2666 by Roberto Bolaño). I would be curious to know of more examples that others have read. Please post them below!

I recommend this book to readers who like

WWII, war, magical realism, black comedy, or slightly trippy novels;

OR

books by Italo Calvino or Kurt Vonnegut.

On Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony”

15 Oct
A harrowing story of post-traumatic stress and a young man trying to identify with two cultures, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko is a modern classic.

A harrowing story of post-traumatic stress and a young man trying to identify with two cultures, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko is a modern classic.

In part because I want to make a trend of authors with three names and in part because I feel I missed out on a huge literary cultural reference in high school, I finally picked up Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. This is the powerful and heart-wrenching story of two wars: the war between the U.S. and Japan in the Pacific Theatre, and the war between white culture and Indian culture in the Arizona high desert. Tayo, a mixed race soldier, is the victim of both.

Tayo was born of a Laguna Indian mother and an unknown white father, and as a “mixed breed” boy, the product of a shameful liaison, he is the target of ridicule from his peers and shunning from his guardians. Only his cousin Rocky accepted him as a family, called him “brother.” Tayo’s idolization of Rocky leads him to enlist, and the two of them are shipped to the jungles of the Philippines to fight the Japanese. When Tayo returns to his Laguna community alone, he falls farther into isolation, now hounded by survivor’s guilt and shell shock.

The first few pages show the signs of a zealous reader. The rest of the book shows the sign of a reader who either ran out of steam or ran out of ink.

Bought this copy for a dollar in a tiny library in Rhode Island, and the markings are like an anthropological find. The first few pages show the signs of a zealous reader. The rest of the book shows the sign of a reader who either ran out of steam or ran out of ink.

Ceremony tells the story of the tradition of storytelling:

I will tell you something about stories . . . They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death.

You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories

The story was all that counted

OK, so she might be a little heavy handed with the storytelling. Silko’s already lyrical prose is regularly interrupted with folktales and legends in the format of songs or poems–line breaks, imagery, and ancient names that Tayo finds comfort in. Tayo goes to these storytelling roots for more than nostalgia. Through them, he finds solace and cleansing. Through them he performs a ceremony of lost culture that purifies him of a culture of war, of the ceremonies of drunkenness, brutality, bitterness, and murder.

When Tayo embarks on a journey to round up a vagrant herd of his Uncle Josiah’s Mexican cattle to rebuild the family ranch. He slowly learns–through the help of Old Betonie (and several well-placed, catalyzing events)–that he has the power to write his own story, a new continuation of a story that can never end. (I’m having flashbacks to “Lamb Chops” here.)

The cattle Tayo chases are made to live in the mountains and the desert. They are wild and lead Tayo all across the land that used to belong to his people.

The cattle Tayo chases are made to live in the mountains and the desert. They are wild and lead Tayo all across the land that used to belong to his people. (Photo by Will Borden)

Now, anyone who knows me knows I’m big on war novels, but Ceremony is something different. This is the aftermath of war. It’s messy and depressing. Even the disillusionment on the battlefield in books like All Quiet on the Western Front or A Farewell to Arms is readable compared to Tayo’s long suffering afterwards. I wouldn’t say this book is easy to read, but it’s beautiful. Silko’s novel reminds me a little of John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat–the story of men after war, especially marginalized men. Men of racial minorities who treated like heroes when they’re in their uniforms, when the threat of alien invasion is imminent. When the threats of fascists and Nazis and Japanese Imperialists are removed, the Indians become the enemy again. We always have to have our enemy.

On Timm’s “The Invention of Curried Sausage”

14 Jul

Is there a better novel theme than World War II plus food? I remember drooling over Brian Jacques’s enrapturing Redwall feasts, even though I don’t think I would know a watercress from a water chestnut. Uwe Timm’s The Invention of Curried Sausage affected me similarly, only using fewer mice. I already love war novels (adored All Quiet on the Western Front, the book and the movie, earlier this year), wish I were Ernest Hemingway, and if only they all had soldiers eating curried sausage, I would just lose it.

The narrator of TIOCS is on a quest to discover the true inventor of the popular dish–a combination of local German staple and exotic spice. Decades after the war and now grown to be middle-aged, he returns to his native town of Hamburg, where he remembers an old Lena Brücker, famous for the curried sausage she sold from her street cart. Our narrator finds Mrs. Brücker interned in a nursing home, now blind and toothless, but still sharp. From her he hopes to discover the truth of curried sausage, suspecting she invented it, but instead gets embroiled in her story of her middle-aged adventure: harboring a young deserter during the collapse of the Third Reich.

Timm shifts from a news-like prose to the thoughtful voice of Mrs. Brücker to the stoic reports of the narrator, and I wouldn’t say the shifts are effortless. They are artistically planned.

The long Brücker stows Bremer away, the harder her confession becomes. Her guilt for lying and his guilt for desertion culminate in resentments, suspicion, and eventually violence. Their relationship becomes a lovely, if slightly twisted, display of people adapting to peace and the unwillingness to face change even if the change is for the better.

Despite the title, curried sausage sits in the backdrop to the story of Brücker and Bremer, but it is the inevitable product of Brücker’s life–all her choices and deceptions and intentions. Still, though, one of my favorite quotes of the book illustrates the dish’s impact and Timm’s exemplary prose, which can be at times transcendent:

“The first officer took him ashore for a meal, curried chicken, that tasted, Bremer said, like a garden, a taste from another world. The wind; the snake that bites; the bird that flies; the night, love. Like in a dream. A memory of when we were once plants. And that night Bremer actually dreamed he was a tree.”

I recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys war novels or liked books like The Reader or is interested in German history.

Now, it’s off to the kitchen, since the chicken’s almost done and I just bought curry from the grocery.