Friday, November 29, 2013

THE STORYTELLER by Jodi Picoult (fic)

Jodi Picoult is a storyteller herself, and if you read her books you will find yourself turning pages becoming immersed in the story.  That is the best I can say of her style of writing.  She generally chooses a social issue and builds her story around it.  I have only read one other novel by her, so I should not make broad generalities about her writing.  As regards this book, it is long, and the story meanders all over the place.  The characters are not well developed, and Sage the center of the story, is not particularly likable.  The plot is filled with coincidences that are improbable. 

Sage Singer is a Jewish girl living in a small town where she meets Josef Weber, an old German man who frequents the bakery where she works.  Sage is scarred mentally and physically by an automobile accident and has isolated herself emotionally from those around her.  Weber confesses to Sage that he is living under a false name, and that he is responsible for numerous deaths and atrocities committed at Auschwitz during World War II.  He asks Sage to help him die, as he finds it too painful to live with his guilt. It so happens that Sage has a grandmother, Minka, who was a prisoner at Auschwitz.  There is a long middle section that tells the grandmother's story, and that is the only interesting part of the novel.

The rest of the novel borders on the ridiculous.  There is a story of a vampire embedded within, which seems to have no connection with Sage, until the reader discovers that the grandmother, Minka, kept a notebook in which she wrote this other story.  Bringing this vampire story into the book, doesn't make much sense.  Further it seems silly to suppose that a hardened and vicious SS officer would have any interest in keeping Minka alive to find out what happens next in her writing. 

Sage's relationship with a married funeral director and a subsequent relationship with a government agent who tracks down war criminals are contrived to fit the plot line.  Neither are well-developed or have the depth to add to the story of Sage's relationship with Josef.

I cannot recommend this book unless the reader is an ardent fan of Picoult and is comfortable with the many contrivances of the plot line.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline (f)

At various times in the history of New York City, 10,000 to 30,000 abandoned and orphaned children were living on the Streets of the city.  There were no social programs and no labor laws to address this problem.  Between 1854 and 1929, 200,000 of these children were put on what was referred to as Orphan Trains and sent west.  They ranged from infants to 14 years of age. 

Christina Kline has written a novel about these children, based on her study of the era and conversations with some of those still alive.  Her story takes place in 1929, the last year of this practice.  The story of Niamh, a young Irish immigrant who loses her family in a fire, alternates with that of a teenage girl currently living in Maine. This girl, named Molly Ayer, part Penobscot Indian, is also an orphan.  Her life becomes entwined with that of the now 91 year old Niamh.  As their friendship grows, the reader learns their dual stories and how they come to affect each other's lives.

Through the eyes of Niamh, the reader learns of the frightening and often humiliating circumstances to which these children were subjected.  As the trains moved westward, the children were put on view, reminiscent of slave auctions, in the various cities the trains passed through.  Niamh is placed with two families, who change her name to one more pronounceable, before she finds some happiness with a third couple.  The last family give her the name Vivian which remains with her for the rest of her life.  Vivian's history is not unusual for an orphan sent west.  Most ended up on farms where they were expected to do the work of an adult.  Others met more horrific fates.

Vivian eventually makes a comfortable life for herself, and it is in Maine that her life intersects with the sullen teen that Molly has become.  Their relationship which is rewarding for both is at the center of the novel.  Kline has written an interesting book which sheds light on a little-known topic in the history of our country.  Her characters are believable and well-drawn, made more so by the knowledge that this hard and unforgiving life actually happened to a large number of children, before laws were changed to stop the practice.  I recommend this book as a good story with an accurate historical background.

Friday, November 22, 2013

CLOUD ATLAS by David Mitchell (fic)

David Mitchell wrote Cloud Atlas in 2004 and it has been recently re-published because of interest in the movie based on the novel.  I am a huge fan of David Mitchell, but almost passed over this book because of the conflicting reviews I read when it came out. There was no in between, either the reader hated it or loved it.  Well, I am in the latter category. If you enjoyed Jacob de Zoet you will most likely enjoy this book as well.  Mitchell has chosen to tell six separate stories in the novel which together cover about 1000 years.  Each story is told in a different voice, yet all are connected like a Russian nesting doll.  The author's point is to show how we are connected to the past and the future and how history repeats itself.

Mitchell has chosen a pattern of two stories in the past, two in the present and two in the future.  These stories are not in chronological order, though the reader conceivably could follow each story in its thread before turning to the others.  Mitchell has said, My idea was to write a novel whose narratives would be returned to and completed in reverse order.  So, the first story which takes place in 1831 is also the last to be concluded.  Our first narrator is Adam Ewing, an adventurous trader who is on a ship ferrying goods from New Zealand back to England.  His life becomes entangles with a Moriori native and a nefarious doctor, a quack and thief.

The second tale takes place between the World Wars, and is told by Robert Frobisher, an Evelyn Waugh type character who is a bisexual young composer working under an unpleasant mentor in Zedelghem in Belgian.

The third tale takes place in California in the 1970s and our narrator is a reporter named Louis Rey.  Her story is sort of an Elroy Leonard type tale involving nuclear power and crooked corporate heads who are up to nothing good.  She becomes a target when she discovers their motives and dishonesty.

The fourth story is in contemory times and is presented in a the farcical manner of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  Tim Cavendish through his own greed and stupidity finds himself committed in a home for elderly dementia patients.  This middle tale provides a good laugh as he and his elderly companions plot and effect their escape.

The fifth story takes place in a distopian future much like that of Blade Runner.  It is set in Korea where a genetically engineered fabricant named Sonmi escapes her fate in a crazy world run by corporate empires. 

The sixth tale takes place in a post-apocalyptic world set on the big island of Hawaii.  Small pockets of humanity exist separated from each other.  They live in tribes and bring us back to our original story of the Moriori.  They have little memory of the world of the past or of previous learning and inventions which have all been lost. 

Finally the book ends with our Ewing character just as it began.  As you progress through the book, you begin to see how these characters are connected.  It is a fascinating, imaginative journey through time.  I loved this book, but it will not be to everyone's liking.  I watched the movie when I finished the book.  The book and movie compliment each other, but as is often the case, the book is superior to the movie, though I enjoyed seeing the actors showing up as a character in each story.  If you would like to read an imaginative and entertaining ride through history, I highly recommend this book.

THE HORSE THE WHEEL AND LANGUAGE by David W. Anthony (non-fic)

The sub-title of this book is, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World.  It is a dense, meaty tome full of fascinating evidence and valuable charts and illustrations, all to support Anthony's central thesis that the origins of our language lie in the vast steppes of southern Ukraine and Russia.  It is pretty well accepted that the progenitors of our western culture migrated from this area, but is this also where our language has its roots?  If you read this book, you will be convinced it is so, as Anthony does a masterly job of providing evidence to support this. Along with the domestication of the horse and the invention of the wheel eventually came carts for travelling distances and chariots for defence and attack.  This early language is called Proto-Indo-European which followed pre-Proto-Indo-European. It came into general usage about 3500 BCE.  Linguists have been able to reconstruct the basic forms and meanings of thousands of words that are used throughout the world today.  Indo-European is the mother tongue of about half of the world's population today, able to be traced back though Greek, Latin and Sanskrit to our nomadic Indo-European ancestors.  Anthony does an excellent job of helping neophytes like me to understand how our languages are related and how linguists go about tracing common sounds in the various sister languages back to our mother-language.

There is much to absorb in this scholarly work, and it takes time to digest the research and scholarship that the author put into this study. It is a book that I read over a long period of time, taking it up when the mood for learning struck me.  Anthony includes a wealth of archaeological findings to support his work.   If you have an interest in archaeology and language, this is a wonderful reference book for your home library. It would be a treat to take a course on language from David Anthony; the next best thing is reading his book.