Thursday, April 27, 2017

THE GREEN ROAD by Anne Enright (fic)

Anne Enright was a Man Booker Prize winner for "The Gathering."  I enjoyed this novel even more.  Enright is a soulful writer, who notices all the vagaries of everyday life.  She is masterful at getting at the soul of Irish families and presenting the dynamics of their relationships in subtle ways. The beautiful Green Road is a country road which runs through the town of Ardeevin in County Clare.  It leads to the sea and winds its way through the story until the end of the book.

In Part 1 of the book we meet the Madigan Family.  It is Palm Sunday in 1980 and we are going to follow this family for 25 years.  Enright devotes a chapter to each of the family members.  It begins with the youngest, Hanna, being sent to the chemist to pick up medicine for her mother, Rosaleen, a drama queen who is always taking to her bed, when things don't go her way.  Her children refer to  this as "the horizontal solution."  Dan the oldest boy and Rosaleen's favorite announces at dinner that he is going into the priesthood.  Rosaleen immediately takes to her bed in a fit of the vapors, and so it begins.

Well, Dan never does become a priest and the next time we meet him it is 1991 and he has moved to New York City and it becomes apparent that he is a popular member of the gay community in Lower Manhattan.  Enright gives a poignant picture of the devastating effect of the AIDS epidemic on his friends.
Emmet, the younger Madigan son, is an aid worker in Mali.  In 2002 we see him living with his current girlfriend, working among the poor.  By 2005, Emmit is back in Dublin, living with a Dutch woman, seemingly unable to commit to any kind of relationship.

In Part 2, it is the Christmas season in 2005 and Rosaleen, now a widow, is 76 and feeling her age.  She is having trouble concentrating on her Christmas card writing.  She has decided to sell the house which prompts the children to return for a final reunion in the house.  In this part of the book we follow Connie, the oldest daughter, who is married to a successful contractor and is busy being a modern mother and burdened with the care of Rosaleen, whom she hasn't been able to separate from in the way the other children had.  Before she married she took one trip to New York to see Dan, hoping she might find a new life there.  When things didn't work out in the city she declared, "This is the place you went to get a whole new life, and all she got was a couple of Eileen Fisher cardigans in lilac and grey."
By this time, Hanna, a 37 year old failed actress, is living in Dublin with the father of her child and is  a caustic alcoholic.
Each chapter could be a short story, yet they are all connected and the climax of the novel takes place on Christmas Day as the family is gathered together, clearly a damaged and dysfunctional lot.  Rosaleen is as manipulative as ever and it is this manipulation which binds these very different sibling together.

This is a beautifully written novel, by a talented master writer. Enright's timing is perfect when it comes to breaking up the unhappiness of the characters with a light comic touch  I highly recommend it to all readers.

Monday, April 17, 2017


Mahajan's novel, a National Book Award finalist, opens in 1996 in Delhi.  A group of Kashmiri terrorists are planning to detonate a bomb in a busy market in the crowded city, protesting India's policies in Kashmir.  These men are amateurish in their planning and execution, revealing petty issues  within their group; there are jealousies and a pecking order.  They are not radicalized terrorists, other than hating the chief minister,  Narendra Modi, they don't have a coherent focus.  They were inspired by the 1993 World Trade Center attack.  Despite poor planning and some buffoonish behavior, they manage to detonate a small bomb which kills 13 people.

Among those who died in the attack are two young Hindu boys, sons of Deepa and Vikas Khurana.  A Muslim friend who was at the market with them manages to escape, but is badly injured.  Thus begins the story of the aftermath of the bombing and the psychological toll it took on the young boy, Mansoor, his family and the family of the dead brothers.  The effect of the stress and trauma is relentless on these characters.  Mansoor attends university in America, but after 9/11, his parents want him home, worried about anti-Muslim sentiment in the States.  Back home, Mansoor becomes involved with a group of non-violent students who are trying to help wrongly jailed men who are victims of police brutality and corruption. One friend he makes there, Ayub, changes Mansoor forever.  Meanwhile, Mansoor's parents form a group which they call the association of small bombs to help and give support to victims of terrorist bombings.

The effect of their sons' deaths on Deepa and Vikas was disastrous to their relationship.  Each retreats to their own internal world.  "Vikas felt he understood the bomb.  It was part of his world."  Meanwhile Deepa begins a half-hearted affair, that eventually fizzles out for lack of real passion.

While the subject matter of the novel is very serious, Mahajan paces his writing perfectly, with moments of comic relief and the vagaries of everyday life.  His writing is brilliant at times, and his descriptions of the aftermath of the bombing is masterful.  His characters, both good and bad, are revealed as real people with all their worries and foibles and suffering.  Things are not black and white, there are many shades of gray.  Mahajan's writing is influenced by his own experiences.
I enjoyed this book and felt it helped the reader understand both victims and activists.  I recommend it to all readers.  There is much food for thought within.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

ROMANTIC OUTLAWS by Charlotte Gordon (non-fic)

Subtitle: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Shelley

Charlotte Gordon presents her biography of the brilliant mother/daughter authors in a unique and enjoyable way.  She intertwines the story of each in alternating chapters, showing them at the same age.  At first I found the switching back and forth irritating, but once I got into the book, I liked it a lot.  It is very interesting to see these two women at each stage of their development.  Both women were shaped by their difficult backgrounds.  Wollstonecraft had an unstable alcoholic father who moved his large family from place to place as it suited him.  When Mary Wollstonecraft died of childbirth fever at age 38 after a short marriage to William Godwin of five months, Mary Shelly was left to be brought up by a step mother.  Neither had a happy childhood.  Money was always a problem in both households.  Yet, both women grew into strong-willed, brave, free-thinking women, ahead of their times in all respects.

Wollstonecraft left home at an early age.  All doors were closed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to women who aspired to free-thinking and independence.  Other than prostitution, the only way for a woman to earn even a pittance was as a servant, or in the case of those having some education, as a governess, teacher or in rare cases, a writer.  A writer is exactly what Wollstonecraft aspired to be.  After she made her way to London, Wollstonecraft managed to be mentored by a the publisher, Joseph Johnson, who recognized her genus in the first manuscript she handed to him.  Soon she was trading stories with the likes of Thomas Paine, William Godwin and other known philosophers, all of whom respected her intelligence.  Despite her desire for independence, Mary became involved with several men with sad results.  Suffering from depression, she twice attempted suicide before in her middle thirties, until she fell in love with William Godwin and seemed to at last have found a soul mate.

Mary Shelly, was profoundly influenced by her mother's life and writings, though the two women were quite different.  At a very young age, Mary Godwin was introduced to the romantic and popular poet, Percy Shelley who was married at the time.  He found her intellect and free-thinking fascinating, and she fell deeply in love with him. She was very young and Shelley, like contemporaries Byron and Keats, had what today would be rock star status.  They eloped, and later married when Shelley's wife committed suicide. They ran with what was considered a fast crowd, and though Shelly was aristocratically wealthy, he was always being threatened with disinheritance by his disappointed father.

While Wollstonecraft wrote philosophically, Mary Shelley was best known for her groundbreaking gothic novel, "Frankenstein." Mother and daughter, both fighting social norms, made names for themselves.  Both women were dogged and depended upon by their families. Mary Shelley's opinions were just as strong as her mother's, but she had easier relationships with men and she was faithful to Shelley throughout their marriage.  The same could not be said of him.  We are familiar with the brilliant Percy Shelley's death in a sailing accident in 1822 at only 29 years of age.  It is hard to believe that Mary Shelley was only 24 herself.  It seemed they had lived a lifetime together and suffered many adventures and travels.  They tragically lost three children to disease at young ages.  Mary's step-sister, Claire, was always present in their lives, bringing unwelcome drama with her sexual relations with both Byron and Shelley.
Mary Shelley soldiered on until 1851 when at age 58, she died of a brain tumor. She had one surviving child, Percy who was a dutiful and faithful son, with no interest in writing.
The two Marys are buried together.

I recommend this book to all readers.  It is a well-written account of two fascinating women who defied the ages they lived in, to become examples to later generations.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

MOTHERING SUNDAY by Graham Swift (fic)

I loved this book!  It is a beautifully written book, romantic and sad and lyrical.  The story lingered in my mind for a long time.  It is a short book, a novella which is intense and impactful.  The entire story takes place on one gorgeous spring day.  In England, the fourth Sunday in Lent was called Mothering Sunday, a day when servants were given the day off to visit their families.  The year is 1924 and in the aftermath of the war, two families have lost sons in France.  Where once they would have employed several servants, help is now harder to come by.

Jane Fairchild, an orphan, is a maid working in the Niven household.  A young woman, from the time she was 15, she has been romantically and sexually involved with Paul Sheringham from a neighboring estate.  Now on this particular bright spring day, they are about to have their last tryst.  Paul is just before marrying Emma Hobday and all three families are meeting in Henley to celebrate the impending nuptials.

It is Jane's day off and she bicycles to meet Paul, and for the first time she enters his house by the front door rather than the servant's entrance.  We see Paul, his room, and home through Jane's eyes.  All the little details of their meeting and surroundings are alive through her telling.  When Paul leaves Jane, to meet his fiancĂ© for lunch, Jane is left to wander the empty house.  There is a particularly lovely passage of her in the library and what the books she picks up tell us about her and about the family.

The reader knows there will be consequences to this peaceful scene so there is an underlying dread at the same time we spend idyllic moments with the lovers.  We also early on discover that Jane lives to a great age, that she manages to attend Oxford and that she becomes a revered novelist.  Jane as a writer knows the importance of keeping some part of her life to herself and this one day in her life is her secret and ours.

This perfect small story of a meeting on a beautiful spring Sunday is a masterpiece of writing.  It can be read in two sittings.  When I finished the book, I wanted to read it again.  The reader cannot help being caught up in the mood and the setting.  I highly recommend this book to all readers.