Friday, May 24, 2013

THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON by Adam Johnson (fic)

"The Orphan Master's Son" won the Pulitzer Prize for literature for 2012.  It is a bleak, dark look into the hidden country of North Korea.  If I hadn't read of Adam Johnson who teaches at Stanford, I would have been sure the book was written by a Korean who had personal knowledge of the bereft life of its citizens.  The colors I associate with this communist state are grey and dun like the uniforms all seem to wear when we see its citizens on t.v.  The book reflects this mono-hued world, and the only sunshine I can conjure up is on the short trip to Texas that the hero of the book takes in a weird sequence toward the end of Part One.  Many of the scenes take place at night where blackouts occur after 10:00 PM. 

We first meet Jun Do in a home for orphans in a small industrial city.  He clings to the belief that his mother was so beautiful that she was taken to Pyongyang which was often the fate of attractive women. Jun Do lives in dreams, a survival method that allows him to be numb to the dangers that surround him.  Through his loyal obedience he works his way up from being a tunnel rat to an a kidnapper of coastal Japanese citizens.  He eventually is sent to language school to learn English and is assigned to a derelict fishing boat where he mans a listening station hoping to pick up signals and conversations between American and Japanese coastal patrol boats.  This section of the book allows the reader to get to know Jun Do a bit better.  It is touching to read of his fascination with two American female rowers who are circumnavigating the globe.  They row at night, and he listens in on their conversations.  One of the rowers appears again later in the book.

Through a strange series of events Jun Do becomes a state hero and finds himself on a plane with various party officials flying to Texas for a secret meeting with an American senator.  This event is priceless, in turns funny and sad. While there Jun Do is studying his American hosts.  He watches the Senator give his dogs treats and decides, "....that in communism, you'd threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes."

In Part two, events turn very dark.  The reader finds him/herself in an Orwellian world where truth is fiction and doublespeak is pervasive.  It is disorienting and breeds feeling of discomfort akin to what one imagines North Korean citizens might feel.  Jun Do strangely has taken on the persona of a Commander Ga.  In effect he begins to live the life of Ga and falls in love with his wife, Sun Moon.  At the same time the story shifts to Prison Camp 33 and we find Jun Do at turns a tortured prisoner and a husband to Sun Moon.  What is true, what is real?  The reader is left to puzzle the strangeness of this country ruled by Kim Jong-il, The Dear Leader.   In the light of recent events in North Korea, it is even more ominous.

In the end Jun Do is able to salvage his humanity through love and sacrifice.  This is not a book for the faint of heart.  I found this well-written novel tough going but thought provoking.  The plight of the people of North Korea and what goes on behind the line dividing North and South Korea can not be known. It is heart wrenching.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

BELIEVING THE LIE by Elizabeth George (fic)

Elizabeth George is justifiably famous for her on-going series of Inspector Lynley mysteries.  George is actually an American who often out-Brits the Brits with her authenticity of setting and language.  If you have never read an Inspector Lynley mystery, absolutely do not begin with this book, or you may never read another novel by her.  George is an excellent writer and in the past her books, always best-sellers, have lived up to their reputations.  This particular book falls far short of her usual suspenseful plots and cast of characters.   Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley is hardly his recognizable self here.  Yes, he has lost his adored Helen, but his melodramatic self-pity is not up to his former stiff-upper-lip self. The idea that he would be involved with an affair with a woman who is his superior on the force appears contrived, especially as she is a dyspeptic alcoholic.  One might well ask why? One of my favorite characters, DS Barbara Havers is relegated to the sidelines in London, making brief appearances in another sub-plot touching on her personal life. 

This time the action takes place in the Lake District.  Lynley is sent north to look into the death of a member of the dysfunctional Fairclough family.  Accompanying him are his friends Simon St. James and his wife Deborah.  These two in past books seemed intelligent and thoughtful.  What a disaster here.  Deborah is responsible for the loss of a life through her foolish meddling, and Simon is a cardboard character.

The book has too many characters with problems, and jumps from one plot to another leaving the reader confused and wondering how so many people with problems and kinks could come together in one story.  In the end, it all seems contrived.  This might be a passable book for a less gifted writer, but fans should expect more from Ms. George.  One the plus side, her description of the seaside and landscape in Cumbria and Morecambe Bay is evocative.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

APOLLO'S ANGELS by Jennifer Homans (non-fic)

Jennifer Homans, a former ballerina and dance critic, has written a definitive and dense history of ballet.  She follows ballet's beginnings in the 16th century as an outgrowth of Italian Pantomime to its transformation to a more familiar genre when it migrated to France.  Louis XIII and his son Louis XIV were both enamoured of ballet and both performed publicly in highly stylized choreographed dances.  These dances were of mythological subjects, often centered around the god Apollo, the sun god, leading Louis XIV to be known as the Sun King.  At this time dance was not performed on a raised stage, which eventually allowed larger audience participation.  Louis' ballet teacher, Beauchamps was the first to define the five ballet positions, and his proscribed movements became the pattern for all French ballets.  In a slightly modified form they are still used world-wide today.

Holmans takes us though the ages ballet's transformation from France to Denmark to Russia to Italy and back to France and then England.  At first only men performed the dances, and it was de rigour for all courtiers to learn the intricate and graceful steps of dance.  Woe betide the clumsy individual who was made a laughing stock by his peers.

When ballet was taken up with fervor by the Danes, more changes were made and the Danish ballet academy under August Bournonville began a tradition of formality that still influences their choreography today. 

The French Revolution both political and social changed ballet again.  Once women began dancing, stories ceased to be "about men, power, and aristocratic manners... Instead it was an art of women devoted to charting the misty inner worlds of dreams and the imagination." Romanticism took hold. Giselle and La Sylphide were the first modern ballets.

In Russia only serfs were allowed to study the dance until the gifted French choreographer Petipa arrived in the mid-19th century and changed both their style and tradition. His famous collaboration with Tchaikovsky, on Swan Lake, Giselle, The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty, is still enjoyed and respected today.

Finally we come to modern times and the names become familiar, Nureyev, Fonteyn, Baryshnikov, Balanchine, Maya Plisetskya, Frederick Aston, Jerome Robbins, and many others.  Holmans history is tremendously thorough. I enjoyed reading about the 1960s and 70s as those were the times when I fell in love with the ballet and was lucky enough to have seen the major ballet stars of that era.

Holman's ends her history pessimistically (though I don't agree with her assessment).  She compares the ballet tradition to the Sleeping Beauty.  Today ballet is a sleeping art.  She states, "Over the past two decades ballet has come to resemble a dying language: Apollo and his angels are understood and appreciated by a shrinking circle of old believers in a closed corner of culture.  The story ---- our story---may be coming to a close.

If Holmans is correct than I am doubly grateful that I was able to experience the great ballets of the last decade of the 20th century. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

SIGNED MATA HARI by Yannick Murphy (fic)

Mata Hari (an Indonesian word meaning sun) was such a sensation in her day that almost a century later we still recognize her name, whether we know her as a vamp, an exotic dancer, a spy, or a naughty postcard model.  Mata Hari was born Margaretha Zelle in Holland in 1876.  She was married at 17 to an alcoholic army officer named McCloud who was 20 years older than she.  He was posted to Java which was in Dutch hands during that period. 

As the novel opens, we find Mata Hari in a French prison accused of spying for the Germans as Agent H21.  The story takes the reader back and forth between her time in prison and her previous life.  Her contacts in prison are three;  her doctor, her inquisitor and a nun who views Mata Hari with deep sympathy.  Mata Hari supposedly was a double agent also working for the French.  Up until the time of her death by a firing squad, she denied working for the Germans.  It was only after World War II that evidence was produced that proved that she was in fact passing information to the Germans. 

The Mata Hari of this novel is childlike and dreamy.  There seems nothing in her passive character to connect her to the danger of being a spy, nor does she seem to possess the intelligence to work as a double agent.

One wonders how she went  from being a mother of two and housewife to being an exotic dancer and courtesan renowned throughout Europe.  Certainly her marriage was a rocky one.  If the story is to be believed her husband beat her and both of her children became mortally ill while in Indonesia.  Her daughter survived, but her son died or a vague infectious illness.  There is some indication that the children could have contacted syphilis from a parent, though Mata Hari always claimed they had been poisoned by their nanny. 

Mata Hari eventually left McCloud and took up with a secession of men.  Before she left Java, she learned exotic dancing from the natives and took this with her to France where she became a popular stage dancer practiced in the art of striptease.  Whether her spying really had any impact on French and German relations, she was nevertheless executed by a firing squad in 1917.  She faced her executioners bravely, refusing a scarf to cover her eyes.

Yannick Murphy writes lyrically and presents Mata Hari as a sympathetic character that was caught up in an unfortunate situation during a time when there were few ways for single women to earn a living.  She remains a woman of mystery and intrigue.

Friday, May 3, 2013

THE WOMEN JEFFERSON LOVED by Virginia Scharff (non-fic)

There have been numerous biographies written on Thomas Jefferson.  Virginia Scharff's book, by looking at Jefferson through the eyes of the women who surrounded him, adds another dimention to this crowded field.  By the time I had finished reading this book, I felt differently about Jefferson; it adds another piece of understanding this brilliant, complex and difficult man.  In the United States, we are quite familiar with the respect rightly accorded to Jefferson as a great political phosopher and a founding father of our democracy. Along with Madison,  his idea of what the United States should become more closely resembles what eventually evolved, than the ideas of Adams or Hamilton.  However the main thrust of Schraff's book is a look at Jefferson from the disstaff side and he is measured in a different light entirely. 

Jefferson's attitude and ideas about womean and their place in his world is quite a contrast with the relationship of John and Abigail Adams and their equal and mutual respect for each other.  Thomas Jefferson or his heirs burned all letters between him and his wife, Martha Wayles.  There is also an absence of correspondence with his mother, Jane Randolph, so there is a good deal of speculation by Scharff when discussing these relationships.  Because numerous letters exisit between Jefferson and his daughters and grandaughters, the chapters on them are more fully developed.  There is nothing to help us understand how Sally Hemings felt about her relations with Jefferson.  All of the women in the book are important in forming a clearer picture of Jefferson.  Of prime importance were:  the influence of Jane, his mother, as his father died when Thomas was only 14 years old;  his wife, Martha, as they shared a great love which drove him to a period of depression when she died of childbirth at a young age;  Sally Hemings, his slave mistress, whose relationship with him began when she was only 14 and lasted to his death;  and his daughter, Patsy, who continued to pamper and cosset him after her mother's death to the detriment of her own marriage. 

To understand Thomas Jefferson totally is impossible, but to have a clearer picture of who he was, it is important to understand the Virginia society which nurtured and acted on his development.  Here was a society which could condone slavery and hypocritically discuss the importance of free men.  Women's place in society was also clearly demarcated and boundaries never crossed.  Jefferson's daughters and granddaughters colluded in keeping the reality of his life hidden.  The reality was that he took advantage of a 14 year old slave who was half-sister to his wife, and kept her bound to him throughout his life begetting a shadow family of Hemings children while everyone around him turned a blind eye.  He was also demanding and controlling with all the women in his life.

Thomas Jefferson's presidency is not discussed in this book, but his life at Monticello and his other plantation estates gives us a clear picture of his domestic life.  He was not a good manager of money and while slave and land rich, the family was bankrupt and always on the edge of poverty.  Life was precarious on many fronts.  Childbirth was dangerous, epidemics culled the weak, and alcoholism was a widespread problem.  Both of Jefferson's surviving daughters were faithful to weak husbands. 

Scharff does justice to another side of Thomas Jefferson that is important to know.  There is a genealogy table at the front of the book, but no birth and death dates beside the name.  There is an addendum that supplies this, but I found myself flipping back and forth as she does not scatter many dates in the body of the book.  I recommend this book to be read to add another dimension to understanding Jefferson.  There are plenty of starting points for discussion for book groups, not the least is the issue of Sally Hemings and the disparity of the children she had with Jefferson and the family he shared with Martha Wayles Jefferson.