Sunday, 22 November 2015

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser

Short books vs long books; it’s an age old debate. Seriously – google short books vs long books and you will see at least a dozen of debates on the topic. Myself – I prefer the short books. There are too many books to read and not enough time to read them as it is. I can’t afford to spend weeks on one story. Don’t get me wrong – while I will be deterred by a book as thick as the NYC phone book, I will still read it if it sounds interesting enough, but I have never read a long book like that where I didn’t end up thinking that a few hundred pages couldn’t have been edited out. I generally find that the end of long books end up dragging – by the end of it my wrist hurts and I rush through just to get to the end.

Martin Dressler; The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser in particular got me thinking about long vs short books.  This relatively short novel avoids the traps of longer novels – we aren’t bogged down by things that don’t matter. Millhauser tells us what we need to know to further the story. It’s short and sweet. The book is the story of the eponymous Martin Dressler, the son of a cigar chop owner who dreams big and follows through with his dreams. In New York at the turn of the century, Dressler goes from bellhop in the Vanderlyn Hotel to building his own hotels before he turns 30. Along the way Dressler encounters many characters with dreams of their own – just generally not quite as bright as his. He then encounters the lovely Vernon family – Margaret and her two grown daughters; Emmeline, plain yet passionate and intelligent; and Caroline, beautiful, enigmatic, almost ethereal and not quite of this world. Like so many dumb people in this world, Dressler chooses Caroline as the object of his affection due to her beauty, over Emmeline with whom he has much in common. In fact, as Dressler gets to know the family better he realizes that Emmeline is his equal in every aspect. She is able to match him idea for idea – seeing the merit and beauty in his dreams where others think them too extravagant. And to be fair – Dressler doesn’t really ‘choose’ Caroline so much as he falls into what everyone else expects him to do. He marries because he is expected to marry – not because he has any deep desire for Caroline; Dressler is much to obsessed with his ambition to care about love.

Millhauser does a great job of capturing the atmosphere of the times; as we watch Dressler grow we watch the city grow with him. New York at the turn of the century was the place to be, something new was always happening, people were always coming up with bigger and bolder schemes, everyday there was something new to discover. It was time when I think it was a little easier to make a name for yourself. There were so many new things happening - but there was still so much room to fill. Right from t
he beginning Dressler knew that there was more out there for him than his father’s cigar shop.  When he is offered the position as bell boy in the grand Vanderlyn Hotel he is nervous because he is afraid it will restrict him, he doesn’t know quite what he wants to do yet – but he doesn’t want to limit his options. Honestly I didn’t really like Martin. He was a little socially awkward and was very singular in his need to keep doing things better and bigger. It would drive me crazy whenever Dressler would get annoyed that someone’s vision wasn’t as big as his, or they didn’t see things the same why he did. He almost couldn’t understand how someone could be satisfied with less than everything. The fact that I didn’t really like him didn’t at all impede my enjoyment of the story however; I don’t think you are supposed to like him. Dressler is that singular type of person - driven beyond everything else to accomplish what he needs to accomplish. I use the word ‘needs’ purposefully. Dressler is driven to realize his creations; to the point, at the end, where it doesn’t really matter if they are successful or not.

The story is almost set up in snippets of Martins life. Years pass where we see nothing, but then we are brought back in when something good or big is about to happen. They only place where I thought the story was lacking was towards the end – Martin is spending all of his time with Emmeline. He entices her to follow him from project to project, she is the only one who understands his visions after all, but all the time he spends with her is causing tension in his already tense marriage. Things here start to get quite interesting, but as with the rest of the novel we only get snippets of what happens. I would have loved to learn more from other characters perspectives – How Emmeline felt about being a true match for Dressler, while he preferred arm candy instead; and from Caroline about (she is a pretty fascinating character in general, that we never learn enough about) living as a notch on Martins life event belt. This was definitely a good story though- incredibly well written and such a good historical snapshot of one of my favourite times and places.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

I want to be friends with Kirsty Logan. Is that weird?

When I started my Twitter account it was with the sole purpose of trying to attract more readers to my blog – I’m pretty sure that that hasn’t happened, although I must say that the publishing companies and some authors have been great about re-tweeting my reviews, which definitely makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. However! What I have really gained from Twitter, is a bunch of ladies that I love following – Kirsty Logan, Sarah Perry, Kerry Hudson, Jessie Burton – I love watching them interact with each other, I love reading their books and I literally just want to be friends with them. Whenever I tweet any of them, I get a response, and they just all seem so sweet and lovely. It really makes me wish I lived overseas and could somehow fandangle a ‘random run-in’.  But I’m a creep like that.

The Gracekeepers is Logan’s first novel – and I must say that she has done a brilliant job with it. I don’t really want to compare this to Station Eleven, as the books are totally different, but like Emily St John Mandel (another Twitter fave), Logan has created a deeply rich post-apocalyptic setting, where the setting is vitally important to the character of the story, but not at all the thing that you focus on. Logan has created another perfect blend of a story driven genre novel. This time we are in a world where the sea has taken over and there are very few landmasses left. Humanity has divided itself, as it always does, between the haves and the have nots. In this case the haves are the landlockers; those who live on the few islands, able to grow their own food, build their own shelters and have a refuge during the storms. The rest and, once again mirroring real life, the majority of humanity are the damplings – those who are forced to live a nomadic boat life. Travelling from island to island in the hopes of getting a real meal and living the best they can off the few fish and seaweed cooked any way you can imagine. “Ah, so you’re angry because they are rich? Because they don’t have to scratch around for every single thing they eat or touch or use? You have a lot to learn little fish. There’s no use in the poor hating the rich. There’s more to the world than landlockers versus damplings.” Unlike Station Eleven, in The Gracekeepers we never find out what happened or when, we are just plopped in the middle with no explanation.

In the same sort of way we come across the characters of this story. We have North, a circus performer with the traveling boat circus Excalibur; North is a rare character in the circus world due to her act – performing scenes with her tame bear. North was born on the circus, like most of its performers, it’s the only home she knows; but North harbours a potentially dangerous secret, one that might upset the precarious balance of the floating circus. Callanish, a landlocker by birth, now lives as a gracekeeper – one who buries the dead damplings at sea. She has taken this life as a form of punishment for something from her past, and she also harbours a secret that she fears will potentially destroy her. The life that she has chosen is a lonely one – gracekeepers live alone on a house in the sea and rely on food from mourners in exchange for the burial rites. She hasn’t really taken to the life and feels the loneliness very acutely “Around them the graces shuddered in their cages and the sea sucked at the moorings. It was not difficult to pretend they were the only people left in the world. It was so easy, in fact, that perhaps it wasn’t pretending. No one would ever know what happened out here. Such small crimes”. North and Callanish cross paths after a terrible storm and are brought together by their secrets and their fears. “I’ve never actually gotten this far before. I’ve tried to tell people, but I couldn’t manage it. You already know so I thought it would be easier.” While they end up parting ways almost immediately, they are both so struck by one another that they start to see life in a new way, Callanish tries to atone for her past and North tries to figure out a better way to live.

The Gracekeepers is a pretty quick read. I read it over a period of two days, but could have easily finished it in one. The writing is incredibly beautiful, lyrical and it just flows so smoothly, I had read half the book without even realizing it. It almost felt like I was reading a long short story – all of the characters could easily have their own stories; which were something I loved about this book. The characters were all larger than life – from ‘Red Gold’ Stirling, the circus ringmaster, who longs to bring his family back to land and respectability – trying to accomplish this by marrying his son off to North and forcing her to live on land, his horrible wife Avalon, who chose her name to appeal to Red Gold and wants nothing more than to live on land, doing anything she can to get it “When people are cruel it’s often said that they have no heart, only a cold space or lump of ice in their chest. This was never true of Avalon. She had no heart, everyone knew, but there was nothing cold about her. In her chest burned an enormous coal, white-hot, brighter than the North Star. North knew the truth about Avalon: she was made of fire, and she would burn them all.” Even the secondary characters, the clowns and acrobats in the circus, the messengers who bring news to the gracekeepers, even North’s bear – they all had a certain something that left me longing to know more about them – to read them in their own stories. My previous encounter with Logan was through her short story collection – The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales. I have only read the first couple of stories so far – but the titular story, The Rental Heart, I can honestly say, is probably the best short story that I have ever read. Logan is a master of the short story, of packing as much punch as possible into those few pages, it’s incredible.  One of the things that I honestly loved best about this novel was that I felt it to be a unifying thread (or story) connecting all these other potential stories. I will be very sad indeed if she doesn’t, at some point, write another collection based on the characters from The Gracekeepers.

There are definitely elements of old folk tales in this book and I loved how Logan wove them in throughout the narrative. I guess, really, that everything that happens, to North at least, comes from folk tales, but its not overt in any way. Its just a starting point for the story. A jumping point. I would have loved to read more on that aspect, but I didn't feel like I was missing out on anything - I think that the small amount of actual fairy tale ends up making to book more accessible to a wider audience.  My only actual complaint about this book at all was that the ending was a wee bit rushed, another review that I read commented on the fact that something very tragic happens and the character involved doesn’t really seem to react – which I didn’t really notice at the time, but upon reflection agree with – it would have been nice to see more closure with that. Generally, I am always a fan when things are left unsaid; when parts of stories are left untold or endings are left unresolved (I should not say always… Firefly ending prematurely will always sadden me). And while the ending of the main story in this novel was definitely resolved, there was so much more that was left open. There were people and stories that were alluded to, without really being developed – and this worked perfectly for me. This story wasn’t about them; it was about North and Callanish. I think that anything extra would have distracted from them, from their story. That being said, I still have my fingers crossed for a short story collection based on everyone else!

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O'Farrell

This is the second book that I have read in the last month where the events occur during a heatwave; both times I have been really impressed with the way the heatwave becomes an integral part of the story. In this current book – Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell – after months of no rain and oppressive heat, Robert Riordan tells his wife that he is going to the corner store one morning and then never returns. His departure is the basis for a reluctant reunion of his wife Gretta and their 3 children; Michael Francis, Monica and Aoife.  O’Farrell weaves the heaviness of the heat in and around the stories of the Riordan families’ lives; the heat affects them, it affects their ability to think, to make decisions, it makes them tired and lethargic. It’s brilliant really, the way that the heatwave is such a crucial element to the story. You know that if things had been different, if the temperature had been more normal, it’s entirely possible that this story would play out in a completely different way.

Instructions for a Heatwave is really the story of a family and its secrets. It’s the story of how you can be closer to someone that anyone else and still not really know anything about them; you can never know the inner depths to a person if they don’t want you to. Everyone in the Riordan family has their secrets and the keeping of those secrets is what has driven them all to this moment, to Robert walking out and a tension between the siblings so thick, you could cut it with a knife.

 Michael Francis’ marriage is failing; his wife has pretty much clocked out of the marriage as well as being a mother to their two young children. Michael Francis and Claire got pregnant and married too young (in that order). Neither of them are happy, but while Michael Francis is trying his best, Claire has gone back to school, has found new friends and is slowly changing her appearance ‘The Industrial Revolution and its effects on the middle classes,” she says, turning to face him, putting an arm over her page, and he experiences a dissolving feeling in his abdomen. Part lust, part horror at her short hair. He still hasn’t got used to it, still can’t forgive her for it. He’d come home a few weeks ago and opened the front door, as yet innocent of what had occurred behind it that day, as yet full of trust that his wife was still the person she’d always been.”  I could quote this entire page to be honest, it’s a beautiful ode to Michael Francis’ love for Claire personified in his love of her hair; that she has viciously shorn with no regard for her husband. There is a heart wrenching scene a few pages later where Michael Francis is attempting to make dinner while one of his children is constantly asking questions, Claire is leaving and seems reluctant to give Michael Francis any information about where she is going, and the other child is starting to panic about Claire leaving. The scene is complete chaos; I felt stress just reading it.

Monica, the middle child, refuses to acknowledge out loud that her life is not perfect. She feels that she has failed at everything that she has ever tried, and never seems to realize that maybe she needs to change herself before things will get better. O’Farrell really hit the mark with Monica and I really identify with her, although I wish I didn’t! She lets her fear of failure, of being less than perfect affect everything in her life and ends up settling for things that don’t make her happy. She is married to a man that she has nothing in common with, a man who has two daughters; daughters that Monica would love to be a mother to, but they won’t let her in and she does all the wrong things to connect with them. Monica’s biggest problem is herself, her self-persecution and her martyr complex. ‘Homesick: she’s found that it really does make you feel sick, ill, maddened by longing. But by evening, she is always ready, her grief behind her, hidden, like a deformity she must cover up. Hair up. Makeup on. Supper on the range. She will make this work; she will not go back; she will not let on to anyone; she will not show them that she’s been beaten again. Monica with her failed nursing degree, her childlessness, her husband who left her: she won’t be that person. She will live here in this house with its shaky roof, its skirting-boards that scuttle at night, its moth-eaten furniture, its hostile neighbors. She will live here and she will say nothing.”

Aoife, the youngest, is the child who invites the most sympathy, by far. She is dyslexic in a time when the disease was not understood and definitely not often diagnosed. Aoife was a difficult baby which was the start of her problems. When she started school things just got worse. Her parents and teachers blamed her for not being able to read. No matter what they tried she never got better, but Aoife wasn’t a meek child and when her elders pushed, she pushed back. As soon as she was old enough she left home and pretty much lived as a squatter until leaving for America. Although freer in New York, Aoife still keeps the secret of her illiteracy. Aoife herself does not understand her problem and so is embarrassed by it. She tells no one, not even those closest to her; and lives by memorizing everything that she can or using the age old technique of asking for help after pretending to have lost her glasses. ‘She feels herself to be cursed, like those people in folktales who are singled out for the random cruelty of some higher being, condemned forever to have a wing instead of an arm or to live underground or to take the form of a reptile. She cannot read. She cannot do the thing that other people find so artlessly easy: to see arrangements of inked shapes on a page and alchemize them into meaning. She can create letters, she can form them with the nib of a pen or the lead of a pencil, but she cannot get them to line up in the right order, in a sequence that anyone else could understand. She can hold words in her head- she hoards them there – she can spin sentences, paragraphs, whole books in her mind; she can stack up words inside herself but she cannot get these words down her arm through her fingers and out onto a page. She doesn’t know why this is. She suspects that, as a baby, she crossed paths with a sorcerer who was in a bad mood that day and, on seeing her, on passing her pram, decided to suck this magical ability from her, to leave her cast out, washed up on the shores of illiteracy and ignorance, cursed forever.’ I realize that this is a long quote, but I found it very poignant and a perfect description of the isolation that Aoife must feel. She lives her life constantly on the edge of her seat; afraid of being found out, ready to end one life and try to find another. In reading other reviews of this book I have seen criticisms of O’Farrell not getting Aoife to tell anyone of her problem, but I don’t agree with them. Anyone who had lived the childhood that Aoife did, with no one trying to understand the problem, instead just telling her to try harder and Aoife believing herself to be cursed – of course she feels like she can’t tell anyone. Who would support or believe her? No one has before. I feel for Aoife, desperately. Reading is my solace, it’s my happy place, my calm place; and not having that in my life is possibly one of the most terrifying things that I can imagine.

Robert’s disappearance is not the point of this story; it’s really just the catalyst for the siblings being reunited and a chance to come back together after years of separation. Families are complicated but when it comes down to it, blood is thicker than water. You may keep secrets from them, but they rarely remain hidden forever. And in the end no is closer to you than your family and no one else can understand where you come from. I am not sure where Robert has gone, or why. There seems to be a secret that Gretta may be keeping, she does not seem to be freaking out about his disappearance, but is more concerned about her children. Monic and Aoife have been divided by another secret for years but maybe this is their chance to put the past behind them. Either way, I am looking forward to finishing this book. The characters are all completely defined and unique; I am invested in all of their lives and really hope at least one of them gets out happy.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Book to movie adaptations; you either hate them or you love them. Me, I’m somewhere in-between. Early on in my reading career I realized that I was never going to be happy with adaptations unless I learned to separate them in my mind. For the most part I do this pretty well; I am able to pretend the book and the movie are two totally separate entities that just happen to be about the same subject. Sometimes I even look forward to the movie – I am not great a visualising things in my head and I like to have a visual of a character.  Of course this can very easily go wrong. The worst things for me are bad casting and when they change things for the movie that don’t need to be changed (this seems to happen a lot). The one thing that is most important to me though is that I read the book first. I want to form my own impressions and opinions before someone else tells me what to see. All of this preamble is because my boyfriend has been trying to get me to watch Child 44 with him for months. I have been putting it off and ignoring him whenever he suggests it since I didn’t have the book and I am not supposed to be buying any more books – so I was hoping that I could find it in a second hand shop somewhere. AND I needed the copy WITHOUT the movie cover. (I know. I’m picky.) Anyway! Trying to not make a long story any longer than I have already made it – I was able to find a copy that met my needs and am now reading it so that I don’t have to make Malcolm wait any longer!

All that being said – this is going to be one messed up movie. Child 44 takes place in post war Russian, where the only crime that exists is spying against the state. Anyone can be guilty of that crime – doing anything out of your normal routine can cause you to become a suspect and once you become a suspect you are automatically assumed guilty. Leo Demidov, an idealistic security officer has his unwavering loyalty shaken when a series of events leads him to believe that maybe the state isn’t as honest and absolute as they purport. A little boy has been murdered and since murder doesn’t exist, any investigation is being quashed, and Demidov discovers that maybe being suspected of
espionage and actually being guilty of it are two very different things. When things start to get a little more personal and his wife is accused of being a spy, Demidov does the only thing his conscience will allow and ends up being demoted to a remote village outside of Moscow. Here he works for the local militia – the job is demeaning, dealing with crimes that shouldn’t be happening, and he is not trusted by the locals. Leo was a bright shining star with the state police and its unusual for someone disgraced to be allowed to live… When another child shows up murdered in this small town, in the same way as the boy in Moscow, Demidov beings to think that there may be more afoot and starts an investigation, one that could place him and his wife in either further danger.   

This is another mid-point review, and of course, the mid-point occurs exactly as things get interesting. Not that they weren’t already. Child 44 has so many layers that are so intricately woven… I wish I had better words to describe it. Smith has done a brilliant job in recreating the fear and oppression of Stalin’s Russia – a time a admittedly know nothing about. I’m not sure how much of this story is historical, but I am really hoping none of it is. The entire population lives in fear of the state, everyone and anyone expects to be searched or followed at any given moment. Smith describes the three levels of cells in the main state police building and I had shivers “some were ankle deep in freezing water, the walls covered in mold and slime… there were narrow closets, like wooden coffins, where bedbugs had been left to multiply and in which a prisoner would remain, naked, feasted upon, until ready to sign a confession… there were cork-lined rooms were prisoners were heated, cooked by the building’s ventilation system, until blood seeped out of their pores.”

There is also the relationship between Demidov and his wife, Raisa. At first they seem like the perfect couple – both beautiful, Leo is the strong, loyal policeman, and Raisa is the perfect Russian housewife. But things there are not what they seem as well – which poor Demidov only learns after their lives turn to hell. Smith has done a great job of creating their characters and their relationship. No one is exactly what they seem, which makes perfect sense given the temperament of the country in which they live. Everyone must hide their secret selves, their desires and their fears. Only when Leo and Raisa have gone through the worst, and somehow come out alive, can they truly be honest with each other. This layer is truly brilliant, I must say. As interested as I am in every other aspect of this story, this is one that I am most enjoying. Their entire married lives they have never communicated honestly with each other and watching them struggle now – to be honest, to communicate when necessary, to throw off all of their assumptions… Demidov also has to start being honest with himself, which may be even harder “How different was he from his moral opposite? Was the difference merely that Vasili was senselessly cruel while he’d been idealistically cruel? One was empty, indifferent cruelty while the other was a principled, pretentious cruelty which thought of itself as reasonable and necessary. But in real terms, in destructive terms, there was little to separate the two men. Had Leo lacked the imagination to realize what he was involved in? Or was it worse than that - had he chosen not to imagine it? He’d shut down those thoughts, brushed them aside.”

Watching Demidov now try to solve a crime is also slightly horrifying. In a country where there is no crime, there is also no method of dealing with it. Demidov has no forensic training and is doing his best with the little information that he has. Most people are not willing to help; since Demidov is mistrusted no one wants to get in trouble for helping him. This brings another element that I am loving to the book. Demidov’s methods are all based on his intuition – normally he decides who is guilty and finds (or makes up) the evidence to convict them. This time he needs to find the evidence to lead him in the right direction, and that’s not a path he is used to taking. Smith leads us through Demidov’s mind as he plans and thinks and figures things out in such a good way – you struggle right alongside of Demidov.

The only thing that has been bothering me is the blurb on the back of the book. It states “But when a murderer kills at will and Leo dares to investigate, the State’s obedient servant finds himself demoted and exiled.” This is actually completely inaccurate. Demidov does not start his investigation until after his demotion – which has nothing to do with the murder. This is a pretty big distinction. Part of what makes Demidov so real is that it takes the destruction of his glass castle to make him realize what is real and what is important. He’s not a hero sacrificing everything for some noble cause. He’s beaten and broken and trying his best to get by, trying his best to sleep at night and trying to prove himself to Raisa and to himself.