Saturday, July 27, 2013

HIS ILLEGAL SELF by Peter Carey (fic)

Peter Carey the Australian writer who has won the Booker Prize twice is a consistently top notch writer.  You may have read Oscar and Lucinda or The True History of the Kelly Gang.  Most of his books have been set in the past during the frontier years of Australia.  Carey now lives in New York City and has a new novel out which is on my "to read" list.  His Illegal Self is set in both the States and Queensland, but the author leaves the past behind to tell a more modern story.

The story begins through the eyes of a wise and precocious seven year old, named Che Selkirk, a child of the hippie revolution.  It takes place in 1972.  Che was born while his mother, Susan, the daughter of wealthy parents, was studying at Harvard.  She became radicalized after taking up with an underground leader, David Rubbo.  Selkirk and Rubbo led student protests against the likes of Robert McNamara.  They robbed banks and devised homemade bombs.  Their activities lead the reader to imagine them as members of the Weathermen of the 70s.  After Che was nearly run over during a protest, his grandmother Phoebe Selkirk takes custody of the infant and raises him to the time when the story begins. 

The first part of the book is somewhat bewildering as it would be to the young boy who is now called Jay by his grandparents.  At this point, a young Vassar lecturer from Southie in Boston, who admired Susan Selkirk, enters the story.  The reader is told her name is Dial and we at first think she is Che's mother.  It soon becomes clear that she is not.  Rather, she has been sent by Susan and the underground to bring Che to Susan in Philadelphia.  The flight of Dial and Che is told in different flashbacks when the story is continued through the eyes of Dial.  They never reach Philadelphia because Susan is the victim of an accident caused by a home-made bomb.  Dial's story is gradually revealed, and we find out who she really is and what her background is. 

After a series of ill-planned adventures, the underground helps Dial (who is now branded as a kidnapper) and Che to flee to Australia.  Here they join a loosely organized hippie commune on the edge of the outback in Queensland.  This hippie group seem quite hapless as do the local police.  The jungle-like settlement is buggy, muggy and the living conditions are extremely poor.  It is a credit to Che that he is able to adjust to this earthy life and never gives up hope that his adventures will lead to his father whom he fantasizes about.  Despite this, Che is more grounded in reality than the helpless Dial.

One of the men, Trevor, who seems to be on the run for some undisclosed activity, takes it upon himself to protect the naive Dial and Che.  Trevor's motives are suspect and this creates tension as he interacts with Che and Dial.  As the story works toward its ending, this tension builds and keeps the plot moving until the pieces fall into place.

Carey is a brilliant writer and the book is enjoyable and has a bit of a mystery as the reader discovers how all the players are connected.  I was amused to even see Whitey Bulger mentioned, as he was indeed in the news in 1972 and has rarely been out of the news since then.  Right now his trial is going on in Boston.

I recommend this book to all who enjoy a good story related with imagination and color.  This is also a good book for a reading group.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

A BOOK OF SECRETS by Michael Holroyd (non-fic)

How lovely on a perfectly dull and gray day to sit down in a comfy chair and begin a biography by Michael Holroyd.  He has written a number of great ones, among them:  Lytton Strachey, Augustus John, Bernard Shaw and three recent biographies which are on a more personal level as the author inserts himself into these stories. Such is the case with A Book of Secrets: Illegitimate Daughters, Absent Fathers. 

The catalyst in the book is the Villa Cimbrone a picturesque manor surrounded by beautiful gardens which sits on a high hill above Ravello in Italy.  The villa was owned by a late Victorian with the Dickensian name of Lord Grimthorpe.  The story begins with Eve Fairfax who was engaged to Grimthorpe and subsequently abandoned by him.  After he commissioned a bust of her by Auguste Rodin, she became a muse of the artist.  Eve, a lonely spinster living on the grace and generosity of others, reached the great age of 107.  It is possible that she conceived a child, which eventually leads us to Catherine Till who believes her father is Grimthorpe's son Ralph. 

All of the women in the book are connected in some way by chance or relation and all are connected with the Villa Cimbrone.  The most space is given to Violet Trefusis, the illegitimate daughter of Alice Keppel, a mistress of Edward VIII.  Violet who became a well-known author herself, carried on a torrid relationship with Vita Sacville-West which did not end well. 

Holroyd's interest was piqued during the 1970s when he happened by the bust of Eve Fairfax in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  Thus he enters the story as he begins his research on Eve Fairfax which leads to his visits to the Villa Cimbrone with his wife, the author, Margaret Drabble. As the various characters, appear on Holroyd's stage, the tale begins to take on a Midsummer-Night's Dream quality.  Gore Vidal even makes an appearance as he owns a fabulous cliff-side home near by.

There is a helpful family tree at the back of the book, if the relationships of the various characters need further clarification.  The usual Victorian and Edwardian scandal keeps the book interesting to the very end. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

THE THIRD ANGEL by Alice Hoffman (fic)

Alice Hoffman is a prolific author; her novels usually involve emotional connections, forged and broken, among her characters.  Her novel Third Angel traces betrayal and forgiveness within families.  The book is divided into three sections, each of which could stand alone, and the story moves backward through time. The women each come from a different generation, yet are connected with each other, which we discover as the story moves forward. One of the characters is the author of a picture book which can be read both backwards and forwards, just as this novel can. 

Each tale involves either absent parents or sibling relationships, and the love that binds the characters as closely as romantic love.  The title comes from a tale in the middle section.  A young girl, Freida, is making rounds with her father who is a country doctor.  As they drive along he tells her a story of three angels: the Angel of Life, the Angel of Death, and the third Angel who remains among us asking compassion for those who suffer. 

The novel is a romantic fable, at the center of which is the Lion Park Hotel in London which plays a part in each woman's story.  It opens with a wedding in 1999 and the rivalry between two sisters, Maddy and Allie Heller.  This section is a story of secrets and betrayal.  The middle section is about the Freida Lewis now grown up in 1966, who falls in love with a callous rock star.  The final section also also involves a wedding, this time in 1952; the catalyst being a young girl, Lucy, who moves the action toward the novel's climax.  When Lucy grows up, she is the mother of the sisters in the first tale.

The novel is not as complicated as it sounds.  All of the stories mesh nicely.  Because the book is a fable and mysterious coincidences take place, in order to fully enjoy the story the reader has to embrace these possibilities.  I prefer realistic novels, so I cannot say I was able to appreciate this book, although it is skillfully written.  If you are a fan of Alice Hoffman, you will most likely enjoy this novel. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

GRACE A MEMOIR by Grace Coddington (non-fic)

Grace Coddington's Memoir is like an ice-cream cone on a summer's day, quickly consumed but soon forgotten.  My hopes for the book were greater than what was delivered.  Grace is loyal to her friends, and a lot of the more interesting bits about the fashion world are never revealed.  That is not to say that the book is dull, but you have to be familiar with the world of Vogue and fashion to recognize the names of the designers and photographers that come and go in Grace's life.  Coddington has illustrated the book herself, and her line drawings are whimsical and likable.  There are also many excellent photos scattered throughout the book. 

Not long ago there was a documentary, "The September Issue" about the making of Vogue's most important issue of the year.  As it turned out, Grace Coddington was a more interesting character than her boss, the famous Anna Wintour.  Because she was so present in the film with her mane of springy red hair and colorful personality (at times cranky and always direct), it seemed her follow-up book was bound to be interesting. Who could have guessed that this woman, who reminds me of early paintings of the young Elizabeth I with her high forehead and frizzy curls, is the same person who posed for Vidal Sassoon's game changing 5 point haircut of the sixties. 

For me, the best parts of the book are those which tell of her childhood on the Welsh island of Anglesey where I spent two happy summer holidays.  Her descriptions of attending school and growing up there are entertaining and well written.  Her early modeling days in London and life in Chelsea are also very well done.  Coddington was not some frippery of a model.  As an original, talented artist with an eye for fashion staging and styling, she soon became indispensable first to British Vogue and subsequently to its American cousin in New York City.  Along the way, she had adventures and experiences, but she never goes deeply enough into them that the reader remembers them or how they shaped her world.  It is clear Grace has devoted her life to fashion and excels at her job.  At one point in the book she tells us that all her friends (except for her beloved cats) are in the fashion world, and so it does seem.  She ends the book with a description of a fabulous party Anna Wintour gives her for her 70th birthday.  All those fashion friends are there, names recognizable to any one interested the fashion world.  Grace Coddington strikes the right note about herself when she says:
...I've grown to realize that life doesn't stand still and it's no good being sad about it.  For me, one of the most important aspects of my  work is to give people something to dream about, just as I used to dream all those years ago as a child looking at beautiful photographs.  I still weave dreams, finding inspiration wherever I can and looking for romance in the real, not the digital, world.

If you are familiar with Grace Coddington's beautifully designed photos in Vogue you must agree with her sentiments.  If you enjoy fashion, you will like knowing more about Coddington's world.  I just wish the reader could have delved deeper into the personalities who surround her.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

LAND OF MARVELS by Barry Unsworth (fic)

Barry Unsworth, a Booker Prize winner for Sacred Hunger writes fine historical novels that are well researched and terrific reads.  Land of Marvels is much the same.  The setting is in Mesopotamia in 1914 just before World War I breaks out.  One has a feeling of compassion for the characters as they reveal their ambitions.  The reader knows what future the great war will bring and knows the futility of their hopes.  The Ottoman Empire is in decline, and the Middle East is still made up of desert areas ruled by tribesmen.  Germany, England, and even the United States have begun their incursion into land ruled by the Turks in the hopes of finding oil. A few men, including Winston Churchill have the foresight to recognize its coming importance.

As the story opens, John Somerville an English archaeologist specializing in the Assyrian Empire is working on a dig near what will become Iraq, but still then under Turkish rule.  He is sponsored by the Royal Society.  Besides needing money for his mission, he desperately needs time as he daily watches the Germans building a railroad which promises to cut through his excavation site.  Somerville firmly in his ivory tower cannot see what is happening under his nose.  He is on the cusp of a very important discovery, and suspense builds as the novel evolves.

Equally naive is his wife, Edith, a true daughter of Imperial Britain.  Her opposite is Patricia, a very modern young lady, a graduate of Cambridge who is an admirer of Fanny Pankhurst and the votes for women movement. These women are thrown together with an assortment of characters some intellectual and others crassly materialistic.  Patricia falls in love with a cuneiform expert named Palmer who is also of a liberal bent.  He is acting as an assistant to Somerville and has a more worldly outlook and firmer grasp on reality.  There is also a British spy, a major Manning and a couple of Swedish missionaries who are attempting to recreate a tourist attraction, convinced they have discovered the site of the Garden of Eden. 

Enter Alex Elliot, an American geologist who sets story in action, bringing mystery with him, eventually leading to a spectacular climax.  Elliot is an energetic and handsome daredevil who is a double agent working for both the Germans and English, but above all working for his own interests.  He sets the heart of the proper and inexperienced Edith on fire. The reader becomes intrigued with these characters and their involvement with each other. 

Unsworth, the true historian presents an interesting contrast to the West's continuing involvement with the Middle East and its voracious appetite for oil.  It all begins here including the West's misunderstanding of the culture and history of the region.  I recommend this novel as an excellent adventure story, but also as a thought provoking exercise in the parallels with today's world and the problems of the Middle Eastern countries.