Monday, December 30, 2013

THE LOWLAND by Jhumpa Lahari (fic)

Jhumpa Lahari is a past Pulitzer Prize winner and The Lowland like many of her novels deals with Indian immigrants adjusting to life in America.  Lahari writes beautifully expressive prose.  Her descriptions are so complete that the reader is immersed in the settings which play an important part in filling out her characters. She is also perfectly attuned to the joys and sadness in family relationships.  This novel moves back and forth in time from the late 1960s to present day, which makes it difficult to write about the plot without giving too much information.

Essentially this is the story of two brothers, Udayan and Subhash who grow up in Calcutta.  During their university years, there is a radical movement called Naxalism, inspired by the writings of Mao, that has taken hold of many students who cannot help but see the injustice of the poverty which surrounds them in this overcrowded city.  Udayan, the more daring and idealistic brother becomes an active participant in the communist movement, while Subhash the studious and more serious brother continues to focus on his goal of becoming an oceanographer.  Lahari does a good job of presenting the dynamics in a traditional Indian family and the breakdown caused by Udayan's terrorist radicalism.

Subhash in pursuit of a doctorate, moves to Rhode Island to complete his studies.  While Subhash is away, Udayan, in Calcutta, marries a modern very independent student named Gauri. She is a great disappointment to his parents who believe in arranged marriages.

 Having grown up in Rhode Island, I found Lahari's descriptions of the coastline and nearby scenery spot on.  I know exactly each area she presents to the reader, the University, the watch tower, the beaches and ports for working fishermen, the small homes and churches along the coast.  I felt right at home, just as I imagine her descriptions of Calcutta are equally accurate.

Subhash has a sweet affair, his first, with a local woman whom he meets on the beach.  He is devastated when she returns to her husband.  Lahari treats this relationship with all the tenderness that is absent in his later relationship with Gauri.  Gauri is an interesting character in the beginning of the book, when she is a young student in love with Udayan.  She seems real in those moments, but as the story moves on, Gauri seems to lose her humanity and certainly the reader's sympathy.  She is portrayed as selfish and cruel, a cardboard figure.  When Gauri arrives in Rhode Island, she is carrying Udayan's child.  After her daughter's birth, Gauri pursues her own path and eventually abandons both Bela, her daughter, and Subhash who brings up Bela with tender care as his own child.  Bela only discovers her real father as a young adult, and the consequences change the direction of her life. 

While The Lowland is written with expression and attention to detail, it is not Lahiri's best work.  I enjoy her short stories and especially liked The Namesake. This book would have been more enjoyable if the reader could have a clearer understanding of Guari's motives, as much of the plot hinges on her relationship with the other characters in the book.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

COURTESANS by Katie Hickman (non-fic)

This is another find from the remainders table of the local bookstore.  It tells the story of five women spanning the years from the 18th trough the 20th century. These women were all very different personalities with differing reasons for falling into the life of being kept by rich men, but all needed money.  All lived before the era when females could be self-sufficient.  One of the few ways open for them to retain some independence was the world of the demi-monde.  None of these women were common prostitutes.  Each was unique enough to attract the notice of rich and powerful men.  These men were themselves locked in loveless arranged marriages.  The book is an interesting look into Georgian, Regency and Victorian society.  In the early days of the demi-monde, these women achieved a cult status of popularity that would rival pop stars and actresses of today. They were shown off as arm candy by their gentlemen lovers. Their names were universally recognized, and people fought for a sight of these glittering and richly clad creatures.  By Victorian times, their status had changed, and they lived a more secret life, hidden away, often masquerading as married or widowed women. 

The most interesting life of the five belonged to Elizabeth Armistead (1750-1842).  She began her career as a courtesan in her youth.  She was intelligent and dignified.  Eventually she caught the eye of Charles James Fox the brilliant politician in the court of George III.  They fell truly in love, had a great romance and ended their life married, very happily as all accounts would have it.  She was greatly loved by the aristocratic members of the Fox family and honored by their descendants.  The book is an interesting study of social mores and attitudes spanning the years of these women's lives.

THE PATRIARCH by David Nasaw (non-fic)

The sub-title of this biography is The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, an apt title as Joe Kennedy did indeed live through turbulent times which affected both his country and his personal life.  The story of the Kennedy family and the hubris of its patriarch is well known;  yet none of the family is as fascinating as Joseph Kennedy.  Shakespeare could have written a great tragedy based on his life.  David Nasaw, who has written an excellent biography of Randolph Hearst ( a great friend of Kennedy through the war years), has again written a masterful study of a complex and puzzling man.  Nasaw's hefty book covers every aspect of Kennedy's life in an objective manner,
the good, the bad and the ugly.  Joe Kennedy is no easy study, but he left his mark on the family and country and there is plenty of material from which to draw.

Joe Kennedy was born in East Boston in 1888, the grandson of Irish immigrants. The ward politics in the Irish ghetto, as well as the prejudice of  Boston Yankees against the Irish, shaped Kennedy's future and his overriding ambition.  His determination to defeat all odds helped make him a man of many contradictions.  He made his money as a banker, an entrepreneur, a Wall Street mogul, and a Hollywood producer.  Her was a womanizer, yet a loving father and family man who taught his children the value of family ties and loyalty.  He amassed a huge fortune that allowed him to realize the ambitions he bred in his sons and daughters.  Kennedy was a life-long Democrat, yet a conservative business tycoon.  In present day, he would no doubt be a Republican.  Kennedy made huge profits (contrary to rumor, he was not a bootlegger) by investing in property and turning it over quickly.  Much of his business dealings and insider trading would be illegal today.

Joe Kennedy was a micro-manager in every aspect of his life.  He was a strict father, yet his children were independent thinkers, all far more liberal than their father, and they weren't afraid to disagree with him, sometimes incurring his wrath.  Kennedy had a fierce temper and a short fuse, he was a bit of a blow-hard, yet had an easy way with people and a great sense of humor. He was a manipulator of others, but was never to get his way with Franklin Roosevelt.  His love/hate relationship with the President was one of mutual respect and dislike. 

Kennedy was a disaster as Ambassador to England in the years leading up to World War II.  He hated Churchill and admired Neville Chamberlain, and later, Anthony Eden.  Kennedy was an isolationist, and his misreading of Hitler was puzzling. He did a lot of damage to America's image in Europe until he was recalled by Roosevelt. By that time no one in the State Department was listening to anything he said.  Most of the State Department business was conducted of his head. His opinions were studiously ignored on almost every issue. As an intelligent man, one wonders how he could have been so wrong in his analysis of events leading up to the war.

Besides his years as ambassador, the most interesting parts of the book are those describing his relationship with his family.  His love of his children is clear, but his relationship with his wife Rose, remains cloudy.  We know she was a devout Catholic and enjoyed all the privileges that money brings, but after all, Rose and Joe did not spend much time together until after his stroke.  As is well known, the drama and tragedy of the final years of his life would fill a book of its own.  He outlived four of his nine children.  He died in 1969, heartbroken and bereft despite his material comfort and great wealth.

The Patriarch is an outstanding biography that I heartily recommend to those interested not only in the history of  the rich era Joseph Kennedy's life encompassed, but also to those interested in the tragedy of human relationships and family dynamics.  There is a wealth of material for book clubs to discuss and ponder over.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

DREAM WHEN YOU'RE FEELING BLUE by Elizabeth Berg (fic)

This is a sweet little book for light reading.  It is not chic fic, but it is one that will appeal to women rather then men.  The story takes place in Chicago during WWII.  The main characters are three sisters, Kitty, Louise and Tish Heaney, members of a large Irish family.  Of course they have boyfriends who go overseas to fight and the story centers around family relationships and the girls relationships with these men.  Elizabeth Berg excels in her depiction of the war era.  She manages to allow the reader to enter that era, take a look around and even recognize the products and icons of the times.  She presents a very accurate picture of growing up in the 40s, and if the reader was alive then or had parents who were, they will find themselves in familiar territory.  This is the time when meat was rationed, and people made do with mock casseroles, scraps were saved, people walked or took the bus and danced to the music of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey.  Women began to enter the workforce and to wear slacks, and no plastic was in sight.

Naturally the sisters are beautiful, and the story is a bit too pat, but it is nice read for a snowy afternoon and a nostalgic trip to a bygone era.

Monday, December 9, 2013

THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE by Philip K Dick (fic)

Philip K Dick is characterized as a writer of science fiction, which is not a genre that I generally read.  This book was recommended by one near and dear to me, so I approached it with an open mind.  I knew it had one the Hugo Award the year it was written, and I know Dick has a huge following.  A number of his books have been made into movies, such as: Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report.  I expect if you are a fan of his, you have read this book, as it is one of his most famous and is itself about to be made into a movie for the ScFi channel. 

At any rate, for the rest of us who are not familiar with his work, this is an interesting book which is more like the Twilight Zone than a trip on the Starship Enterprise.  My main issue with the book is that Dick's characters lack depth.  It is difficult to care about them as their inner life is so hidden.  They are rather representative of ideas, each with a role representing differing political ideologies.  These characters are full of anxieties and foreboding, carrying the reader along with them. You just know something bad is going to happen.  The basic plot centers on the premise that the Germans and Japanese have won World War II and have taken over the Western world.  The few Jews who survive are either in hiding or living under assumed names and identities.  The US has been divided with Germany controlling the Eastern half and Japan the Western.  Of the two, the Japanese are clearly the more benevolent and are themselves threatened by Germany's growing power.  The story takes place in 1962.

The author was deep into Taoism in his lifetime, and it shows in the writing.  His characters have to wrestle with what it means to be human and have free will.  His main characters Nobuske Tagomi and Juliana Frink worry about this, yet both seem to change in moments when faced with stressful situations.  They become almost robot-like in their responses.  This is the weakness in the story.  How is it that their human nature is so altered almost to the point of insanity?  Are drugs doing this?  Are they being controlled in some other way? 

There is also a secondary counter-story within the novel.  It is an underground book with a cult following called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which details a parallel world where the Germans and Japanese have lost the war to the west.

All this may sound quite confusing, but it is not once you get into the book.  I have read that Dick was a believer in the I Ching and used the throwing of the stalks to determine the outcome of the plot.  He certainly has his characters do so.  Whether he did so or not, we will never know as he died some time ago. 

There is no doubt the story and the moral ambiguities it presents is an interesting and imaginative one.  If you enjoy science fiction and haven't read this book, I would recommend you do so, or you might just like to try a different type of fiction for a change, as I did.  It did not, however, make a convert of me.