Lost in September, by Kathleen Winter

lostinseptemberKathleen Winter’s Lost in September both is, and isn’t, a novel about General James Wolfe, the English commander who died in battle on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 after securing victory for England over the forces of New France, more or less ensuring that Canada would be an English-speaking country with a large and unhappy French minority for the next few centuries. It’s a novel about Wolfe, narrated through the eyes and voice of a young man in modern-day Montreal who may be … the ghost of James Wolfe? A time-travelling James Wolfe? A reincarnation of James Wolfe? A traumatized veteran of the Afghanistan war who just happens to be fascinated with and haunted by James Wolfe?

None of this is clear for much of the book, nor does it need to be. The multilayered memories of James Wolfe and Jimmy Blanchard weave in and out of one another on a surreal quest rooted in very real and vivid detail. It’s a quest that ranges from Montreal to Quebec City to the Gaspe Peninsula, a quest to understand the mind and motives of a long-dead man as well as to uncover the life and purpose of one who is still living.

This novel was weird, but I loved how it immersed me in its mystery and plunged me into the troubled mind of its narrator. The shambling, shamanic quest builds to a poignant conclusion with the reminder that whether in the eighteenth or twenty-first centuries, war is brutal and leaves men shattered in its wake. Some die “heroically” on the battlefield; some live on to try to rebuild their lives afterwards. This is a story of both kinds of men in one man, and it’s fascinating and eerie and beautiful.

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The Revolution of Marina M., by Janet Fitch

marinaJanet Fitch’s novel The Revolution of Marina M., spotted at random on a bookstore shelf (so I totally judged a book by its cover) swept me away into the world of the Russian Revolution as seen through the eyes of a young middle-class Russian girl, stepping into adulthood in St. Petersburg just as her city and her country is about to be plunged into unimaginable changes.

Marina Makarova is the same age as the century, turning 17 in 1917. She’s a poet, the daughter of an Anglophile father who is immersed in the politics of First World War Russia under the Tsar. Her older brother is away fighting the Germans; her younger brother is a dreamy artist who resists their father’s efforts to make a man out of him by sending him to military school. Her mother is … complicated, as is Marina’s relationship with her. With her two best friends, Varvara and Mina, Marina explores the edges of the revolution that’s in the air; with her older brother’s friend Kolya she explores the first tastes of adult passion. Then revolution comes — first the abdication of the Tsar and the establishment of the Provisional Government, in which Marina’s father is active, then Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution which completely tears down and seeks to rebuild Russian society.

Marina’s world, too, is torn apart — her family shattered, her first love affair quickly ended and replaced by a second in which she becomes part of a circle of radical young poets and artists along with her boyfriend Genya. Meanwhile the Revolution careens along, promising a workers’ utopia but unable to provide food or clean water to the majority of St. Petersburg’s poor, and Marina’s life careens along with it, from one unexpected adventure to another.

This is an epic novel on both the personal and political levels — Marina is caught up in huge events, but the events of her personal life as she navigates family, friendship, two love affairs and a horrific brush with a violent gangster, are, if anything, even more turbulent than what’s happening in the streets of St. Petersburg. Some of the disasters Marina faces are of her own making — she makes terrible choices about men at least three times in the novel when, the second and third time, she really should know better — but she is a passionate woman led astray by what she believes, over and over, is a love she cannot resist. (She’s also still in her late teens, not a time of life best known for people making smart decisions). She is frequently a frustrating character, but also a compelling one: by the end of the novel her determination to survive, no matter what tragedies strike her personal life or the country she loves, is overwhelming.

I found this novel hard to put down, both for Marina’s personal story and for the depiction of Russia in the throes of revolution. Russia is very far from being my area of expertise so I cannot judge how accurate Fitch’s depiction of it is, but the streets of St. Petersburg during the Red Terror certainly felt real, and the layers of complexity around who supported revolution and why, what the different parties and factions were, revealed a far more intricate story than the brief summary version of the revolution that I teach my students in our overview course of 20th-century history.

The novel opens with a prologue set in the early 1930s, with an older Marina living far from Russia. As the story progressed, it ranged widely over the Russian landscape around St. Petersburg and across a wide variety of relationships and experiences for Marina — but time-wise, the story stayed focused on the revolutionary years of 1917-1919. As I drew near the end and Marina was still only 19, I began to wonder how Fitch was going to wrap up this incident-filled story and give us a hint of how Marina ends up where she does in her thirties. It seemed impossible to tie up the loose ends of her story so quickly — and sure enough, at the end of the last chapter came the fateful words: End of Book One. I’m pleased to know there’s going to be a sequel but frustrated that I have to wait to find out what happened to Marina.

For a book that gives you the feeling of being immersed in a different time and place I recommend this one very highly — even if once in awhile you want to give Marina a good kick in the pants to remind her that a guy who’s broken your heart once will definitely, definitely do it again, and also, it’s not worth risking your life for the possibility of great sex. Hopefully the second volume will reveal that Marina has learned some of these lessons.

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The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

remainsofthedayA couple of months ago, I was watching Netflix’s excellent drama The Crown and remarked to my husband, “It’s quite an accomplishment to make a compelling drama about a group of people whose entire guiding principle is to show as little emotion as possible in any given situation.” If this is true about the British upper classes it is, perhaps, even more true of the servant class who traditionally made their lives of luxury possible. The ideal English butler, like the ideal English servant at any level, was envisioned as a blank slate, a person who expressed no personal opinions or wishes except to be of service. Never has this suppression of emotion been more deftly explored than in Ishiguro’s 1989 novel The Remains of Day. Although I’d often heard of the book and the 1993 movie starring Anthony Hopkins, I’d never seen the movie and had never read the novel until a couple of weeks ago.

The book is narrated in first-person by the butler, Mr. Stevens, in the 1950s. As with many of the great houses in Britain, the house in which Stevens has served for so many years is on the decline in the post-WW2 years. No longer owned by the nobleman who once employed Stevens, the house has been bought by a rich American and the staff greatly reduced. Stevens is taking his first vacation in — well, ever, really — and borrowing his employer’s car to drive to visit the former housekeeper, Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), who has written him a troubling letter that causes him to re-examine their past relationship. The novel, and Stevens’s memories of the past twenty-some years, unfold throughout the one-week solitary road trip.

Using a character as emotionally repressed and unused to self-examination as Stevens as a first-person narrator is a very difficult trick that only a writer as skilled as Ishiguro could pull off. Stevens is a man so completely subsumed in his role and so hemmed in by rules and expectations that he is almost completely cut off from his own feelings, and so the reader intuits Stevens’s feelings more from what he doesn’t say than from what he does. We realize as the story unfolds that Miss Kenton was in love with Stevens and that he was attracted to her; that he grieved over the illness and death of his father; that he disapproved of his old employer’s tolerance for Nazis in the pre-WW2 years — but he never admits any of these things openly, either to himself, to other characters, or to the reader. Rather, in every case he puts his own opinions and feelings to one side to do what he feels is his duty. This devotion to duty results in a life that is, to put it kindly, emotionally stunted — and by the end of the novel, there is just a suggestion that perhaps Stevens is beginning to realize this. Whether he has the capacity to live any differently in what remains of his day, or whether he will remain forever trapped by the image of the perfect English butler, is a question left unanswered. This is a masterful character study and left me far more moved than I expected to be.

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The Way of Beauty, by Camille di Maio

wayofbeautyOne of the things that makes a piece of fiction (especially, I’d argue, historical fiction) engaging and memorable, is a strong sense of place. Camille di Maio’s third novel, The Way of Beauty, especially shines in this area. It is not only a New York novel, but a novel that very specifically pays tribute to a particular Manhattan landmark, the old Penn Station built in 1910 and demolished in 1963. The novel’s main character, Vera, is the child of German immigrants growing up in poverty in the early 1900s while the station is being built — her father one of the labourers who helps dig out the underground tunnels for this new marvel of 20th century transportation. Half a century later, Vera watches as this architectural wonder is destroyed in the name of progress. Along the way she falls in love with Angelo who runs the newsstand, forms a fierce friendship with the suffragette Pearl, becomes a mother to Alice and a substitute mother to Will, and lives out her life, loves and passions in the shadow of Penn Station.

While Vera’s story, and the stories of those around her, are interesting, Penn Station is the real star of this novel, and I was fascinated after reading the book to look up some of the history about it and learn how its demolition, and the resulting protest, paved the way for New York City to rethink its treatment of historic buildings and halt the process of tearing down landmarks in the name of progress. A good book should feel like it is deeply rooted in a real place and time, and Vera’s story in The Way of Beauty certainly achieves that.

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The Very Worst Missionary: A Memoir or Whatever, by Jamie Wright

worstmissionaryI’ve been a fan of Jamie Wright’s writing since the early days of her blog Jamie The Very Worst Missionary, when she and her family were working for a Christian mission in Cuba and Wright was realizing that she was somewhat less than the ideal missionary. Her writing was raw, funny, honest, and not always something you’d want to read aloud in church (i.e. she tells the unvarnished truth and uses swear words while doing it). After her family returned to the US I was glad to learn she was working on a book and eager to read it.

While The Very Worst Missionary did not disappoint, it also left me wanting more. A big theme in this book and in Wright’s writing is how disillusioned she became with the whole idea of missions, of white evangelical Christians going to other countries to promote a particular brand of Christianity, and with many of the motives and methods of those who do so. Without expecting her to turn this book into a tell-all memoir that names and shames specific missionaries, I wanted to hear more about this. I wanted more examples of why she became disillusioned and why life in Cuba was such a struggle for her. Her writing is as wry, funny and honest as ever, but I was hoping for more detail. However taking the book for what it is rather than what I hoped it might be, it’s still a good, engaging, funny memoir from a Christian who became uncomfortable with the brand of Christianity she was supposed to be selling and the way in which “missions” were being done. I recommend it.

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Flat Broke with Two Goats, by Jennifer McGaha

flatbrokeI stumbled across this memoir entirely by accident: it was the “Big Read” in my library’s e-book app (a book they encourage lots of people to read by making it available with no waitlist, but for only a one-week borrowing period). I read it quickly and found it enjoyable, but looking around online has made me realize it’s a pretty polarizing book, for reasons I can quite understand.

McGaha’s memoir of that time her upper-middle-class family lost everything (only, not really everything, because it never really is everything when upper-middle-class people lose everything) and moved out of their way-too-big suburban home into an Appalachian cabin, really annoys some people. It’s painfully obvious in the first half of the book that the author’s financial problems stem from a combination of 1) overspending on a lavish lifestyle they can’t afford, 2) her husband’s horrific mismanagement of their finances, 3) her own absolutely oblivious cluelessness that led her to ignore warning signs and keep on spending, and 4) the economic downturn and housing crisis in the US post-2008. Only one of these things was  unavoidable, and wouldn’t have hit the family hard at all if not for reasons #1-3.

I can see why, especially for people who have experienced genuine poverty, McGaha’s cluelessness about her own privilege really grates. The Appalachian cabin with the goats is cute and all, but with all three kids off to college by the time this crisis hit, she and her husband would have done much better to downsize by re-homing four of their five dogs and finding a cheap two-bedroom basement apartment in an urban area close to public transit. However, people make the choices they make, and as long as you keep in mind that this is a relatively rich person’s version of being poor, you can go along for the ride with McGaha (she does at least recognize that their financial crash was their own fault and doesn’t try to shift the blame, and she realistically explores the strain put on their marriage by her husband’s financial mismanagement).

I think my problem with this book — which, again, I did find an engaging read and basically enjoyed — is that it seems like two books in one and they’re not particularly well-integrated. The first part is all about the family’s financial troubles and the loss of their home, and it explores both the financial and emotional impact of that crash in great detail. Then they move to the cabin and, on a whim, decide to keep goats. (This is not a financially sound decision, if you are trying to recover from the loss of your life’s savings and pay back a massive tax debt to the government. There is no indication that they ever expect to make any real money out of the goats, and the goats turn out to be freaking expensive).

At this point the memoir turns almost entirely to goat husbandry, which is fine because I like goats and I like reading about them (though if I ever had any fleeting desire to keep them myself, that’s definitely gone now). But there’s no attempt to weave the first and second parts of the story together — no indication in the first part that living off the land and keeping livestock was ever a part of McGaha’s vision of who she is and the life she’d like to lead, and no closing-by-return in the second part to follow up on the financial story and tell us how the family made out after this downsizing escapade. She doesn’t even discuss how they were able to afford buying the goats and paying for their various veterinary bills, etc., — which, in a memoir that started out being about her family’s descent into poverty, seems like an odd omission. I’d rate this as an interesting but flawed memoir.

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Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson

davinciThis weighty biography of da Vinci took me awhile to read (partly because I had it out of the library, had to return it unfinished and then go back on the waitlist to get it again because it’s so popular), but it was worth the time it took to read. Like most non-art people I know a bit about da Vinci — the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, his notebooks, something about designing helicopters — but this book pulled it altogether and told me so much more about his life and his art. Things that surprised me: I didn’t know how few completed paintings da Vinci actually did; I wasn’t aware of Isaacson’s conjecture that a lot of his ambitious designs, like the proto-helicopter, were probably designs for theatrical special effects rather than things intended to be used in the real world; I didn’t realize how notorious he was for starting projects of all kinds and not finishing them. It was also interesting to see how his scientific inquiry and his art were so closely tied together; in a world where we so often make this artificial distinction between “the arts” and “the sciences,” it’s instructive to read about Leonardo painstakingly dissecting and sketching human bodies to better understand anatomy and then see how that translated into his drawings and paintings. Isaacson argues that the main quality that made Leonardo a genius was his overwhelming curiosity: the same passion that led him to start projects because they interested him also led him to abandon them uncompleted when they ceased to interest him and new things piqued his massive curiosity. This was a fascinating glimpse into one of the great minds of human history.

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