Tuesday, May 30, 2017

THE KASHMIR SHAWL by Rosie Thomas (fiction)

I picked this novel up on a whim, thinking it would be a good beach book, and I was pleasantly surprised.  I think the title is unfortunate because Rosie Thomas is more than the labeled romance writer.  I haven't read any of her other 20 or so novels, but when I read a bit more about the author, I discovered that she is an adventurer who has travelled all over the world and is personally acquainted with the Himalayas and the countries which they surround.  Her settings are places she has traveled to and familiar with.

The story is set in both Wales and Kashmir, and moves back and forth between 1939 on the eve of WWII and current day.  It is mainly about a Welch woman, Nerys Watkins and her Presbyterian missionary husband, Evan, who go out to a small isolated village in Kashmir to preach the gospel. The isolated village of Leh is cut off from the outside world for half of the year by the mountain snows and severe weather.  When her husband decides to trek further into the mountainous regions, he convinces Nerys to move with friends to the safer haven of Srinagar, a beautiful lakeside city where a British garrison is housed with a large population of Europeans.

Fast forward to current day, and Nerys' granddaughter, Mair, when cleaning out the family home in Northern Wales, finds a beautiful Pashmina shawl with intricate embroidery wrapped in tissue along with a lock of light brown hair.  When no one in the family appears to know its origin or story of why it has been kept so carefully, Mair decides to track down the mystery and perhaps discover something more about her grandparents.  Being at loose ends with time to spare, Mair travels to Kashmir to begin her detective work.  She brings with her an old photo of Nerys and two other  unidentified woman smiling on the deck of a houseboat.  It is the story of these three woman who lived in Kashmir at a time when India and Pakistan were about to receive independence and Kashmir was caught between their ambitions which continues to this day.

Thomas writes well and has woven enough history into the story to make the book more interesting than just a romantic tale. The ending will surprise as well, and the shawl ties the story of Nerys and Mair together.  Mair recognizes this is no ordinary pashmina like the machine-made ones we see in department today.  This shawl was lovingly crafted and has a story of its own.  Even today, in an interview, the author tells us that similar hand crafted shawls cost well over $1000.

I enjoyed the book more than I imagined I would, and though some situations were contrived, it is a good escapism read with enough meat to the story to make it interesting.

Monday, May 29, 2017

THE SPINNING HEART by Donal Ryan (fiction)

"The Spinning Heart" was nominated for the Mann-Booker Prize and was chosen as the Irish Book of the Year when it was first published in 2012.  Set in a small Irish town whose chief industry was a construction company which rose to dominance during Ireland's economic boom at the turn of the new century, the novel is a series of 21 vignettes, each comprising a chapter and each the story of a character, much like Anne Enright's "Green Road."

Now the recession has arrived and it is after the 2008 economic crash.  Each of the 21 characters has a tale to tell as we are privy to his or her internal monologue.  The characters know each other and are loosely connected through their previous jobs or family.  The first chapter introduces us to Bobby Mahon who was the foreman at the construction company.  We discover right away that the boss, Pokey Burke (and son of the owner) has fled the scene after he destroyed the company through his dishonest dealings which affected the lives of all his laborers who were left pensionless. Bobby Mahon was at one time the lad about town with a bright future.  His story is the thread which runs though all the other tales of dysfunctional families, alcoholism, poverty, and desperation.  Bobby is loyal to a father whom he hates but can't abandon.  "I go there everyday to see is he dead and every day he lets me down." His overbearing father has never been able to show the love that he does feel toward his family.

Looming over all at the edge of town is a new building estate, half-finished, abandoned and a sad reminder that at one time prosperity was around the corner.  It is reminiscent of others all over Ireland at the time.  One showed up in the Tana French book, "Broken Harbour."  In one of the few occupied houses, lives Realtin, a single mother who is desperate to make ends meet.  She and Bobby are thrown together by chance and a tragedy grows out of their innocent relationship.

Ryan writes of real people, not only the working class, but also teachers and lawyers who have lost their living because of the depression.  The voice of the characters is rich in West Ireland speech patterns and dialogue. The story is a reminder of the way life can change on a dime and the vagaries of fate.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

THE REEF by Edith Wharton (fiction)

Sometimes it is a pleasant journey to return to an old classic and a bygone era.  Just so with this novel by Edith Wharton, written in 1912, that respite year, just before the great World War broke out. Woodrow Wilson had just been elected President, Charlie Chaplin had made his first film, and it was the year of the sinking of the Titanic. I had not read this book before, though I have read and enjoyed many of Wharton's other novels.  This book is not as well known as her other classics.  When Wharton wrote this book, her marriage was all but finished.  She was at loose ends and had just begun an affair with Morton Fullerton.  Women were enjoying more freedom and were traveling alone, taking jobs, freeing themselves from corsets, and expressing their independence.

Each of the three main characters in the story, as it unfolds, come to grips with a psychological struggle concerning the meaning of the lives they are living.

George Darrow is a single American diplomat who was shuttling between Paris and London.  He becomes reacquainted with an old love interest, a wealthy widow, with one child.  They rekindle their romance, but Anna Leath is a product of the old way of life and society.  She is a beautiful woman who feels comfortable in the upper class's rigid conformity to society's rules.  Anna has been protected from life's struggles.  However, her love for George causes her to awaken to the modern world which she is not a part of.  She questions the meaning of her life and her previous marriage which she realizes was neither real nor alive.

In his travel to Paris from London, George meets a vivacious and modern young woman, Sophy Viner who is charming in her natural openness. George is captivated by her, and as their friendship develops, he struggles with the dichotomy of his feelings for both women.  Sophy in turn, is uncomfortable with her feelings for a man that she instinctively recognizes is unobtainable.

How these characters lives affect each other and become entwined forms the plot of the story.  There is a point when George muses on their predicament feeling that, "They seemed like the ghostly lovers of the Grecian Urn, forever pursuing without ever clasping each other."

I enjoyed visiting this long lost time in the years before war brought changes, that caused life never to be the same again.  Wharton is adept at realizing her characters and setting the scene of the era that was her modern world.  Paris and the life of the French upper class, is beautifully written.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

REPUTATIONS by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (fiction)

This is the noted Columbian author, Juan Gabriel Vasquez's latest novel.  It follows the successful "The Sound of Things Falling," an enthralling novel placed during the time of the Colombia drug wars.  I enjoyed "Reputations" even more.  Vasquez usually writes of a period of time grounded in historical fact, and this is his first novel since moving back to Bogata after spending most of his life living in Europe.  The books was translated from the Spanish into English by the excellent Anne McLean, herself a recipient of a number of awards.

Although Columbia's difficult period in politics forms a discreet background for the story, Vasquez's focus is on Javier Mallarino, a noted and lauded political cartoonist.  Mallarino has weathered various threats on his life, forcing him in 1980 to move out of the city to a more rural area. It opens as he is about to receive an award for his work.  In the celebration following his honoring, he meets up with a young woman, a friend of his daughter's who is seeking the truth about an incident from her childhood that had occurred at Mallarino's home.  This is the catalyst that causes Mallarino to examine the past and in doing so it creates doubts about the part he played in the suicide of a former Congressman, Adolfo Cuellar, whom he had ridiculed in a series of political cartoons.

The young woman, Samanta, brings back memories of his relationship with his ex-wife and his distant daughter.  The incident, which may or may not have happened, took place at a celebration at the Mallarino's country home.  Cuellar came to the party uninvited in an effort to speak with Mallarino, who rebuffed his pleading to stop harassing him. At some point in the evening, it appeared that Cuellar had interfered with the young Samanta.  It remained unclear what actually happened and Samanta was on a mission to discover this incident in her life that her parents refused to speak about. Mallarino agrees to help Samanta, find the answer to the missing piece of her life.  In delving into the past, he begins to doubt that anything actually happened, and his quest leads him to seriously question his own motives in the downfall of Cuellar.  In reflection, Mallarino states, ...." there was only one thing the public liked more than humiliation, and that was the humiliation of the humiliator."

Vasquez's books often hark back to the theme of memory.  Like the belief of an indigenous tribe in Columbia, Mallarino muses, "...the past is what is in front of us, because we can see it and know it, but the future is what is behind, what we do not see and cannot know.....It is a poor sort of memory that only works backward." The past begins to haunt Mallarino; it has a way of returning to bite one's complacency.  He examines the breakdown of his relationships.  Characters drift apart, others return years later.  In attempting to reconcile with his wife, when Mallarino suggests they try to reunite, she replies:  "I like my life the way it is.  It has taken me years to get it together and I like it the way it is. I like solitude." Vasquez often shows us the solitude of city life where one is surrounded by people, yet in many ways, alone.

Juan Gabriel Vasquez is on of my favorite writers.  His books are thoughtful with insights into the human character and at the same time they are placed in specific times in history.  He is a fabulous writer and luckily has an excellent translator who is able to portray accurately the beauty of his spare but meaningful language.  I highly recommend this book to all readers.