Saturday, November 29, 2014

THE BLESSING by Nancy Mitford (fic)

Nancy Mitford, the eldest of the famous Mitford sisters, is known for her brilliant books of social satire.  Her most famous being "Pursuit of Love," and "Love in a Cold Climate."  These books and characters are thinly veiled accounts of growing up in her eccentric and unique English family.  In her writing, Mitford carries on the long and penetrating British tradition of poking fun at social mores, perfected by Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, P.G. Wodehouse, et al.

While "The Blessing" is not as widely read as her other books, it has all the flavor of the best of them.  I wonder if this book could be written today in our age of political correctness and woman's lib.   Rather than seeing it as the social satire it is, Mitford might be lambasted for presenting old-fashioned ideas of woman and national traits.  Instead, we are more tuned to expecting similar observations on t.v. from Saturday Night Live and numerous sit-coms.

"The Blessing" was written in the mid 20th century and presents a hilarious picture of the foibles of Americans, English and French socialites and want-to-be's."  Grace Allingham, an upper class English rose meets an aristocratic French soldier during World War II.  They fall in love, marry, produce a child, the blessing of the title, and are separated by the war for seven years.  When they finally reunite, Charles-Edouard de Valhubert spirits Grace, son Sigi, and domineering Nanny off to the French countryside and then to Paris.  The plot of the book is moved along by Sigi who has turned into a monstrous child unable to be reigned in by Nanny, a complaining old biddy who is frozen in her Englishness.  There are all kinds of odd English, French and American characters floating in and out of the lives of the Valhuberts.

It turns out that Charles-Edouard has a weakness for pretty women, Grace is jealous, Nanny is trying to control the household and Parisian high-society is full of gossips and dinner parties. Sigi has perfected the art of causing just enough trouble to keep him spoiled and in turn doted upon by both parents and those who are trying to impress his parents.  Through his meddling, Sigi eventually causes his parents to separate by playing one off the other.  Never fear, he does get his comeuppance.

This is not a book to be taken seriously, but as an enjoyable satire, full of typical British humor where pretentiousness is revealed as buffoonery, and all's well that ends well.  I laughed my way through it and not for a minute found it dated.  Penguin vintage books reissued it in 2011.

Monday, November 24, 2014

THE MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE by Orhan Pamuk (fic)

Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006 and subsequently wrote this novel. Pamuk has been rightly praised for his meticulous writing style. This book has been beautifully translated from his Turkish to English by Maureen Freely.

This is a story about a love that lasts a lifetime, an obsessive love by a 30 year old man named Kemal for Fusun an 18 year old distant cousin.  The story takes place in 1975 in Istanbul.  I have never been to Istanbul, but after reading this book, I felt as if I knew the city intimately.  Pamuk even includes a city map of the area where the story takes place;  Pamuk is good at placing the reader in a city he so obviously loves.  The 70s was an interesting decade all over the world, and in Turkey the youth were breaking away from old family traditions and identifying themselves as European, that is, if they came from the privileged wealthy class.

Kemal who is from a wealthy family is engaged to Sibel, also a child of privilege.  She is educated, fashionable and part of the same social circle as Kemal.  It would seem they are destined for each other.  Then one day by chance, Kemal enters a shop where the strikingly beautiful but lower class Fusun is working.  It was love at first sight, a passionate absorbing love that began to interfere with Kemal's daily life.  Their affair begins almost instantaneously.  They begin to meet in an old and unused apartment that belongs to Kemal's family.  The uneducated and virginal Fusun is very unlike the modern Sibel who takes sexual relationships in her stride as part of the youthful revolution she sees around her.  To Fusun, this relationship must end in marriage, while Kemal, as much as he is obsessed with Fusun, still is thinking like a Turkish man of the times.  He is convinced he can marry Sibel and keep Fusun as his mistress.

This situation is bound to cause trouble, and thus the novel progresses drawing the reader into Kemal's growing obsession and his inability to control the situation.  Fusun leaves Kemal, his relationship with Sibel falls apart and in the year it takes for Kemal to find Fusun, he descends into a depression that almost undoes him.  He finds himself retreating to the shabby apartment and collecting souvenirs of the affair, assembling a museum, glorifying his trysts with Fusun.  He begins drinking heavily and watching the single channel t.v. vacantly.  He loses all ambition and leaves the family business to his brother to run.

During his year of searching for Fusun, Kemal is driven around the city by the family's chauffeur in his father's old 1956 Chevrolet which at that time was a symbol of wealth in Turkey.  Thus the reader is privy to all the scenery of the coastal city on the Bosporus as well as the endless driving through the different sections of Istabul.  Without going into the further details of the story, I can say that after he finds Fusun a further eight years of unfulfilled passion go by.  Kemal and Fusun become enmeshed in a strange dance of manners and mixture of old and new social mores.  Kemal's obsession begins to weary and grate on the reader.  This part of the book could have been made shorter without losing the thread of the story or the sense of the characters.  I began to long for the end and resisted the temptation to skip ahead to see where this story was leading.

Orhan Pamuk likes to insert himself into his novels and he does so in this story as well, so he enters the story as a character who is a family friend.  It is a little disorienting to the reader, but charming, as it makes the story more real.  The other characters in the book were equally realistic and I felt I knew these people very well and that I was living life with them as I read along.

While I got into the plot and lives of the characters and loved touring though Istambul back in the day, Kemal's obsessive personality got in the way of my total enjoyment of this novel, and I was happy to move on when I closed the last page.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

THE WRONG MOTHER by Sophie Hannah (fic)

I have not read a Sophie Hannnah mystery before, but she has her followers who await each book with anticipation. I found the book has an interesting plot and could have been a much better book than it turned out to be.  

The story opens with the death of Geraldine Bretherick and her young daughter.  Nearby a journal was found that may or may not belong to the dead woman.  What the journal reveals is a woman stressed out with the demands of motherhood and the boredom of keeping house.  She may or may not have murdered her daughter and then committed suicide.  A second plot line involves Sally Thorning who is the narrator of the story.  Sally, also in a moment of stress, trying to juggle the demands of work and raise a small daughter, becomes involved in a brief affair with a man she knows as Mark Bretherick, who may or may not be the husband of the dead Geraldine.  Somehow Sally finds herself in the middle of a police investigation and proceeds to become more interested in solving the mystery than attending to her work and family.  This leads to big trouble for Sally.

The beginning of the book is interesting and shows promise.  To my disappointment, the characters are never well-developed and their actions and dialog do not ring true.   I gather this is not the first time that Sophie Hannah has written about the stress of motherhood.  Is it really as difficult as she makes it out to be?  Not only did I find the main characters uninteresting as people, but the police on the case appear to be woefully incompetent, at times buffoonish.  

Monday, November 10, 2014

ROOM by Emma Donoghue (fic)

Emma Donoghue is a brave writer to take on such a difficult topic told through the eyes of a 5 year old precocious boy named Jack.  "Room" was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and was picked as one of the year's best books by "The New York Times."  It won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and  I understand it is soon to be made into a movie.

"Room" is the story of a young university woman who was abducted at 19 and kept prisoner for seven years by an obviously demented man whom we only know as Old Nick.  She and the young child she bore were kept in an 11 by 11 foot room which became their whole world.  This world is everything to Jack the narrator who calls his mother, Ma.  The reader soon feels the claustrophobia of being a prisoner and living in fear.  Despite this fear, Ma has made an environment for Jack that shields him from the ugly truth of his world.  She invents games for him to play and devises exercises for him to keep him healthy.  Jack has no playmates other than Ma, and he has invented an imaginative country where objects become friends and all have names.  He is secure without knowing  his mother is living in horrifying conditions.  Both Ma and Jack are dependent on Old Nick who knows Jack is his child, but doesn't want to see him.  Jack is sent into the cupboard whenever Old Nick enters the room.  As the author is Irish living in Canada, I was deep into the story before I realized it takes place in America where there have been several real life long term abductions which recently have been in the news.

The second half of the book takes place in what Jack calls The Outside.  If I go further into the plot it will be a spoiler.  But I can tell you that new characters enter the story including Jack's grandmother.

On one level the book is a study of what happens to the psyche of someone kept prisoner for a long period of time, deprived of human interaction,and in the case of Jack someone who has never known another person besides his Ma.  On another level it is a testament to the love between a mother and child.  And in yet another level it is a story of society's inability to fully understand what being a solitary prisoner can do to a person and the long term stress it produces.

Emma Donoghue has written a terrifying yet absorbing story which is full of hope and the power of love.  It is a memorable tale that will stay with the reader long after the final page is read.  She is a masterful writer, and I highly recommend this book to all readers.  Reading groups will find much to discuss and contemplate.