Wednesday, May 30, 2012

PRIVATE LIFE by Jane Smiley ✰✰✰✰✰

This is one of those wonderful, gentle, flowing novels that sweeps you along through the lives of its characters.  I didn’t give it five stars for stunning prose or great characterization (the usual reasons a novel gets five stars from me), but rather for the many inter-twined themes and the ways in which they spoke to me.
Do not mistake me, characters are very important to this novel, and there are a two pivotal ones, surrounded by a rather large supporting cast.  Primarily, the novel is the story of Margaret Mayfield, at twenty-seven a woman on the verge of spinsterhood in late nineteenth century middle America.  Margaret catches the eye of local eccentric academic, Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early, marries him, and moves with him to his Naval posting in California.
As the nineteenth century becomes the twentieth, we see the novel’s themes evolve along with the marriage (the novel’s central theme).  Married to a man who views himself as an important physicist and astronomer and coming from a small town that reveres him as such, Margaret comes to realize certain things over the years as secrets are revealed-but are things really as they seem?  This is a brilliant skirt of the line women at this time in history had to walk within a marriage, a line of loyalty, saccharine smiles, knitting circles, and self-denial.  Other characters bring the other major themes of feminism (one progressive minded individual in particular) and racism (Japanese/American relations) into the novel and into the marriage of Margaret and Andrew.  It was the way in which these latter two themes were threaded through the fabric of the Early’s relationship which I found so masterful, and these elements which took this novel out of the level of another hum-drum look at a pre-feminist movement marriage, which, let’s face it, are rather boring and frankly quite irritating at times for we modern girls to read about.  Yet, at the same time Jane Smiley managed to keep the marriage realistic for the time frame in which she was writing, because she doesn’t make Margaret the feminist-a very good move I thought.
This is, as stated, a gentle, flowing novel about a marriage, but that said, there are many historical events popping up throughout the book.  For instance, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the First World War, the Second World War, and in particular the internment of Japanese Americans at Tanforan Racetrack in nearby San Bruno.  Ms. Smiley does an excellent job, aided in part by Andrew’s Naval job and in part by a friendship between Margaret and a Japanese family, due to Margaret’s interest in Japanese art, of inserting a lot of historical flavor and facts into the novel without it feeling overdone.
This is another book that I listened to on audio, and I would definitely recommend Kate Reading’s lovely narration.  Her smooth inflection was just perfect for the tone of the novel.
If you are looking for a character based novel focusing on a turn of the century marriage and interwoven with some relevant themes and events from that time in history this is an excellent choice that I highly recommend.


This was a book I really wanted to give five stars, for the fact of choosing to write about such grueling subject matter, but unfortunately, I just couldn’t do it.
Ha Jin attempts, in novelized form, to depict the Japanese storming of the Chinese city of Nanjing in December of 1937, a period of weeks which became known as the “Rape of Nanjing” or the “Nanjing Massacre”, due to the awful savagery with which the locals, both civilians and surrendered military alike, were treated by the victorious Japanese army, who raped, pillaged, burned homes, and murdered with shocking brutality somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 Chinese men, women, and children (we will never know the exact number).
I had two main issues with this novel.  First, I felt that in telling the book from the viewpoint of the rescue workers, the westerners and Chinese who worked in the safe zone and helped to set up and maintain the refugee camps, the reader never really connects with the victims themselves.  It seemed to me as if the action was happening off on the periphery of the story, and I felt a kind of emotional detachment from it.  This was in turn exacerbated by my second issue with the novel: that the prose was very flat and lacking in pathos.  It felt as if I were reading a very dry newspaper rendering at times; frankly, I have read more emotionally charged writing in nonfiction history accounts.  Ha Jin took what should have been a subject bleeding with despondency and drained it of all its human energy.  More focus needed to be on the victims and less on the details of the school; as written, the book lost its impact.
I did appreciate the epilogue at the book’s end, letting the reader know what became of Minnie Vautrin at the end of her life, and what became of the college, but it really was beside the point of the novel.
In fairness, I must say that I listened to the audio of this book, and I did not like the narrator.  Her style was very stilted.  Initially, I wondered if this might have something to do with my feelings regarding the book.  However, after writing the bulk of my review I read some other reviews and discovered that others also feel the same way that I do, so I do not think that it is just the stilted narration which affected my viewpoint.  Overall, a take-it or leave-it book for me.

CONQUEROR by Conn Iggulden ✰✰✰✰

The latest in Conn Iggulden’s series on Genghis Khan and his descendants, this novel focuses primarily on Kublai Khan, and his transformation from gentle scholar to Mongol warrior.
This book contains all the elements of the others: great medieval battle scenes, intrigue as family members vie for the khanate, and glimpses into the Mongol culture-including its strong women.  Kublai comes through as clearly one of history’s greatest khans, and both his private and public sides are ably etched.  Although you do not absolutely need to read all the books in order, I would recommend it, as it will give useful background information which will enhance the reading of the later books.
A fantastic writer, Iggulden’s books are well researched; you settle easily into the ambience of a Mongol camp or city.  The plot is fast paced, but despite shifting lines, there is never any confusion, even in the audio, as to which plot thread you have jumped into.  His characters seem to step right off the pages of history and into their own distinct personalities.
I finally listened to one of these Khan books on audio, and I must say, I did enjoy it.  It was nice to have all the names, after four books, pronounced for me; perhaps I should have thought of that in book one!  The audio was well done, and I would definitely recommend it; these would be excellent books for men and women alike to listen to on road trips, as the themes would easily appeal to mixed audiences.
As with all the others, this one is a solid, four star read for me.  Great entertainment for all readers of medieval historical fiction.  

Thursday, May 10, 2012

NOTES ON A CENTURY by Bernard Lewis ✰✰✰✰

The Short Version

Bernard Lewis is a renowned Middle Eastern historian approaching his century mark.  In this his swan-song he gives a brief biographical sketch from his early years through the time he begins to achieve fame in his field, gives favorite anecdotes from a lifetime spent as confidant and advisor to rulers and statesmen and from his career in academia, and finally, answers some of his critics.  While very different from his multitude of scholarly writings, this one is still packed with tidbits of analysis and history and well worth reading for both those familiar with Professor Lewis’ earlier writings and those who are meeting this great mind for the first time.

The Long Version

This was perhaps one of my most anticipated pre-publication review manuscripts, and while it was very different from what I expected, it did not disappoint.  A Middle Eastern scholar of great renown approaching his hundredth year, Professor Lewis is certainly no stranger to publication-he has thirty-two books, which have in their turn been translated into twenty-nine languages, to his credit.  In the past decade and a half he has churned out a stunning dozen books which he himself gives explanation of in this book as a cleaning out of his files, the desire to finish, before he departs this earth, all the loose ends of research that he has left hanging about his cabinets.  This book is very different.  It truly is notes on a century.
The first section of the book reads almost like a biography, in which Professor Lewis gives an account of his youth, university years, initial jobs in academia, war service during the Second World War, and finally his return to teaching after the war.  In this organized biographical sketch a clear grounding of the prominent man in his field that Professor Lewis would become is laid.  We see the boy with a phenomenal facility for languages who would later become the man proficient in fifteen.  We are introduced to the young British intelligence officer who would in time become confidant and counselor to monarchs and statesmen.
In its middle portion the book gains the feel of its title, being composed of a series of vignettes spanning the many decades of Professor Lewis’ professional life.  Here he shows himself to be a man of charm and first-rate storytelling ability, in addition to the political and historical insight for which he is renowned.  The various tales range from academia and research, to world leaders he met either in a consulting or social capacity.  At times he give very brief historical sketches, in order to give his readers background information that they might need to understand, and thus more thoroughly enjoy, his stories.  Ever the teacher, despite being a very brilliant man, Professor Lewis is very readable by an average person, because he remembers that events which he might hold as common knowledge, his reader probably does not.  Because of this, this book is a wonderful refresher, or introduction, to such things as the wars between Israel and Egypt in the Sinai and the various conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians.
The final section of the book is used to answer some of the controversies which have surrounded him, as is inevitable given his academic stature.  Perhaps the largest of these, but the one which surprisingly he gives the least amount of ink, was the large scale battle of many decades launched by the Palestinian born, Columbia University English professor Edward Said, in his famous book, Orientalism.  The main thrust of Said’s attack against western born scholars of the Middle East is that their slant on the history and politics of the region encouraged imperialism to flourish.  While the argument is of course deep, scholarly, and far too complex to get into here, or even in Professor Lewis’ most recent book, he does use this book to reiterate once again his feelings that Professor Said has missed a couple of main points, among them the fact that there were chairs of Oriental studies in European universities centuries before there were any moves towards colonizing any of those countries.  He also puts forth the point that while native born historians do provide invaluable cultural insights into their peoples, often truly objective history can only be written by outsiders.
In addition to a number of lesser issues, one other major issue is addressed: the controversy which arose from Professor Lewis’ refusal to grant Armenian victim’s the title of “holocaust”.  He came under extreme censure, including legal, for this decision, but stands by, and defends his research as an historian, believing that the facts simply do not support the definition of holocaust as defined by the experience of the Jews in World War II, which is the commonly accepted definition among scholars.
In summation, this book is vastly different from the scholarly works that students of Professor Lewis are accustomed to reading, but very much worth the time, especially for those who have never read any of his books, or for those who do not have a very strong working knowledge of his subject, as he does not assume that his reader is beginning with any.  Professor Lewis’ easy charm comes through with little pretension, and even when the subject matter does become a bit academic the writing style is so perfectly clear, and the author so absolutely in command of his subject, that the reader is easily carried along.  Long-time readers of Professor Lewis will enjoy the amusing anecdotes of this his swan-song, even if there is probably very little new here for them from a scholastic standpoint.