Skylight by Jose Saramago

Skylight

 

Some say that that magic of a good work is diminished when that work is translated into another language. Others are quick to suggest that good works transcend language, that theme and rendering are enough to carry those stories through the ages, regardless of what tongue is used to tell them.

In Skylight, readers are introduced to the tenants of an apartment building in Lisbon during the 1950s. Each chapter in the book deals with a different family or different protagonist, and each protagonist feels personally and historically authentic. Silvestre, the cobbler, is an older gentleman, contentedly married for many years. His presence in the overarching narrative serves a philosophical purpose as well as a wistful one. He is the building’s embodiment of contented, nostalgic remorse. Abel, his tenant, is everyman. While he’s led an eventful life of his choosing, he is the closest thing to a tabula rasa as readers are likely to get. His is the search with which we can all identify: the struggle to begin becoming oneself and the struggle to figure out who that self is to be. Other characters in the story struggle with issues of sexuality, age, fidelity, infidelity, each in his or her own way asking the same questions. In fact, everyone in the story seems on the brink of becoming whom he or she is truly supposed to be.

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The title Skylight is indicative of the fact that as readers, we are simply getting snapshots of the characters’ lives and struggles. We are seeing more, perhaps, than those who live and work around them, but we are still kept at a distance. Oddly enough, the experience of reading Skylight does seem somewhat like interacting with the characters through plate glass: we can see them, we hear their words, we are privy to their thoughts, but we never actually know who they are. However, readers will more than likely find someone with whom to identify or sympathize in  these collected tales of daily living.

Jose Saramago’s Skylight was originally published as Clarabóia in Spain circa 2011. It was translated into English by Margaret Jill Costa in 2014. While it may be true that some of the flavor or essence of the writing is lost or removed by the process or translation, readers will still find that flavor and that essence present in the characters’ searches for their true selves and the lives they are supposed to lead.

Farewell, Dorothy Parker by Ellen Meister

Farewell Dorothy Parker

It’s been awhile since I’ve written a review, and this book might not be the best one with which to resume. But it’s something to get me started again. In the past, my reviews have been academic, formal, dry. Something tells me Dorothy Parker would have hated them.

“The great trouble lies in expecting too much of a thing.”

-Dorothy Parker in ” Ziegfeld Follies of 1921″

Parker was, arguably, authentic in her voice. At least when it was time to bring the snark, which I honestly expected more of in this book. Probably one of the biggest takeaways I found here is that Parker’s voice cannot be emulated, and her wit defies imitation.

In Farewell Dorothy Parker, we’re introduced to Violet Epps, a somewhat renowned movie critic, whose life is complicated by a custody battle involving her niece and her niece’s grandparents. Violet is articulate and feisty. In her reviews. But her gumption is reserved for her writing, and her backbone all but disappears when she has to interact with people in real life. There’s a complicated backstory there that involves her older sister, now deceased, but in all honesty, the reason for Violet’s pliability seems sort of underdeveloped.

Through a series of bizarre circumstances, Violet is introduced to the real live (sort of) Dorothy Parker, who invades her life and, perhaps predictably, teaches her how to use her own voice off the page as well as on. And somehow, in the process, Violet manages to teach Parker a thing or two as well.

The idea for this story is a unique one, a literary what-if if there ever was one. The writing…eh…it’s ok. I wouldn’t say it’s the book to pick up if you’re looking for pretty sentences. But anyone who’s a fan of Parker will appreciate the nerve it must have taken to put words into her spitfire mouth. The book is a fun read and a quick one, and I don’t regret the time it took me to finish it. Meister is also the author of Dorothy Parker Drank Here, which is also currently on my bookshelf. I don’t know that I could read them back to back, but  I’ll probably get to it sooner than later.

For now I’m content to move on to something a little less fantastic (maybe) and a little more scandalous: Judith Mackrell’s Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation.

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

LiveByNight2“That’s what it took to stay on top in the rackets,” we’re told, “everyone had to know you’d long ago amputated your conscience.” And for awhile, the sentiment is believable. Almost. The thing is, Joe Coughlin, the protagonist in Dennis Lehane’s Live by Night, is nothing if not conscientious. Maybe he doesn’t see the world through a completely legal lens, but he does see it, a virtue to which his counterparts cannot lay claim.

Joe is Irish and hails from Boston, a typical scenario for a gangster story, at least based on popular portrayal. His story begins and ends with his struggle to define himself, outlaw or gangster, “syndicate boss” or father. Joe is fairly certain of himself, seeing only an outlaw trajectory for his life, until he meets Emma Gould, whom he would, in later years, describe as “a beautiful woman whose vices had failed to love her back.” Emma is responsible, at least in part, for propelling Joe right out of his outlaw status and into true gangster territory. Through Emma, Joe finds himself swimming in an undercurrent of crime that reveals the harsh realities of rationalization.

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Rage and its appeasement play a critical role in Joe’s ascension up the ladder of organized crime. His ability to commit crime feeds on it, requires it for sustenance, thus rendering Joe its captive. Despite this rage, though, and the crimes he commits in its name, Joe remains a sympathetic character. Readers will not find him to be a good guy, but they will not find him an all-encompassing bad guy either. During his prison stint, Maso Pescatore, a reputed crime boss, tells Joe, “Everything in a man’s life is about profit. Profit or succession.” Joe is a whiz at profit, organizing Ybor City and other outlying areas of Tampa with a no-nonsense approach to order and productivity. But given his tenuous relationship with his own father, the idea of succession permeates Joe’s existence, sometimes on a conscious level, sometimes not, and Joe uses the fundamental idea here (a kill-or-be-killed mentality) as the basis of his enterprise.

The undercurrent of religion in the novel cannot be ignored, and Joe struggles with how his idea of religion governs his actions. His is not the Catholocism that’s expected of him by those who don’t know his true profession. Neither is it the absolute rejection of a moral code as is assumed by those who do. Joe’s belief in God is a personal one, one that doesn’t depend on proselytizing evangelists or beads and rituals and crucifixes. In the few short years we get to know him, he decides that heaven, the only real heaven that we can ever attain, is here on Earth. Since this is to be the most perfect place, Joe seems to see it as his personal duty to maintain a functioning order by whatever means necessary, even means of questionable legality, and this belief becomes the religion to which he adheres.

Terminal Notes: The novel is nothing if not climactic, twisting and turning the plot as frequently as the allegiances between the gangsters. The inclusion of the Ku Klux Klan in Tampa seems somewhat arbitrary, but it does give the story more historical dimension. Lehane has created a character whom readers will neither wholly fear nor love. They will, however, combine the two. By the end of the novel, we may not agree with everything Joe has done, but we respect the person he’s decided he truly is.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

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Morning commutes are supposed to be uneventful. They are our time in the day to set our minds to the tasks we face. They give us the opportunity to fully awaken to ourselves, before we’re forced to awaken to other people.  But when Rachel, the focal voice of Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, rides the commuter train to London every morning, she gets more than she bargained for.

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Unreliable at best, Rachel has fallen into a state of personal disrepair, a state perpetuated by her alcoholism. Her recent divorce has left her both grasping at and rejecting a sense of normalcy that only seems to tiptoe near the edge of possibility. Every morning Rachel gets up to take the 8:04 train into the city (where she no longer works) because she can’t bring herself to tell her roommate that she’s recently been relieved of her job. Her train takes her past her old home, the old home in which her old husband still lives with his new wife. And very new daughter. It also takes her past the home of Jess and Jason, two strangers for whom Rachel creates an imaginary life representative of the one she wants and thought she had. Jess and Jason, though, are not quite the people Rachel imagines them to be. No one in this novel is. And when Jess, whose real name is Megan, comes up missing, Rachel feels personally invested in solving the case.

Throughout the novel, readers will feel the same vague sense of recognition that Rachel feels. We know the answer. We have all the clues. They are right in front of us, but Rachel’s drunken state on the night of Megan’s disappearance hinders us just as much as it does Rachel. The answer always seems attainable but just out of reach, moving further away as we move closer. Granted, there is some evidence sprinkled throughout the story, but the level of suspicion necessary to see it requires a certain level of concentrated cynicism.

The story moves at a brisk clip, much like the train that sets it in motion. However, readers may find themselves confused by superfluous details. Unnecessary characters and irrelevant discussions tangle the plot further than is absolutely necessary, which is, perhaps, the point of their inclusion, but more than anything they serve to exacerbate the reader’s sense of frustration with Rachel’s constantly repeating the same mistake.

Terminal Notes: The Girl on the Train offers readers an active reading experience, one in which every detail seems crucial in the moment. The ending, while somewhat anticlimactic, is not predictable, and readers will feel a very realistic connection to Rachel, even if the connection is established only in frustration and annoyance or in relief that they no longer have to contend with her.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

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The Corrections, at its fundamental level, serves up a dish of reality harshly truthful and bitingly accurate. Franzen’s depiction of the Lamberts, each in his or her own grossly human element, is convicting at best, condemning at worst.

No sympathetic characters present themselves at the beginning of the novel. As we are introduced to the Lamberts—Alfred, Enid, Gary, Chip, and Denise—we learn only the baser parts of their characters, their flaws, their shortcomings, their weaknesses, their failures. We learn that Alfred was less than a perfect father; Enid is a shrill, judgmental, and meddling mother; Gary is a depressed father and husband with a chip on his shoulder; Chip is the chip on Gary’s shoulder, the brother to whom Gary can’t measure up even though Chip himself is a less-than-perfect intellectual has-been whose life has no direction; and Denise is a sexually confused girl of privilege whose choices are made only in consideration of how shocking they might be to her family, if her family ever found them out.

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Of course, there are secondary characters. No novel would be complete without them, but these characters exist merely to amplify the discontent that seems all but genetic in the Lambert family unit, acting either as foils or reinforcements for their faulty personalities.

Franzen’s prose is unique in that it is both clear and poetic. He has a way of weaving story elements together here that, by the end, leaves his readers with a sense of completion and fulfillment, a sense that even if the story was, at times, too real, we still got the whole of it. The Corrections doesn’t just tell a story; it explains how the Lamberts arrived at their present circumstances without the reader realizing what’s happening. It explains, through Alfred’s degeneration, that there is an age at which we will eventually realize that it is too late for corrections.

Terminal Notes: By the end of the novel, each of the Lamberts has become a sympathetic character. We may not like them, but we understand them, which seems to be the book’s overarching. Sure, there are issues of class, sexuality, marriage, and ethics. The Corrections is nothing if not burgeoning with thematic material, and readers will find plenty of book club discussion fodder.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

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Audiobook narrated by Rebecca Lowman.

“Be careful of choosing what you’re proud of,” warns Katey Kontent, the protagonist of this 1930s-era fiction, “because the world has every intention of using it against you.” In her chronicle of Katey’s experiences in 1938, Amore Towles weaves an intricate web of clever deception, wicked circumstances, and simultaneous self-preservation and discovery.

Katey is a sharp, independent female with a realistic understanding of the world in which she lives and a fierce loyalty to her sense of self. On New Year’s Eve 1938, she and her friend Eve encounter a well-to-do banker sort in a low-rent bar in New York City. For awhile, the three are inseparable, and Katey allows herself to develop feelings for Tinker, the banker, who willingly allows himself to develop feelings for her as well. But when tragedy strikes in the form of a car accident, the relationship dynamics change, and Katey is forced to suppress her feelings. Lack of family and true personal ties (outside her ties to Eve, that is) leaves her to find solace within herself.

Over the course of the year, Katey spends her time trying to avoid Eve and Tinker, and for the most part, she is nearly successful. She manages to occupy her time developing her career and reading and trying on new personas to see whether they fit. When she finally makes her way back to Tinker, her return serves no other purpose than to offer closure to both characters after which they both seek themselves in a larger world than either had ever previously considered.

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The title, Rules of Civility, is more of an indictment of such rules. Anne Granden, Tinker Grey, and Eve herself suggest that the rules of civility aren’t really rules at all. Or, in any case, if their behavior constitutes civility, we might all be better off without it, a fact Katey seems always to have known.

The audiobook incarnation of this book is every bit as moving as an actual physical reading of the book could have been. Narrator Rebecca Lowman (who also narrates Anthropology of an American Girl) is particularly gifted at interpreting nuances and expressing them in a way that seems inherent to the characters. Her reading provides a depth and clarity not always present in audiobooks and turns the experience of listening into a more meaningful one.

Terminal Notes: While love is indeed thwarted in a superficial way here, it is fully realized in a more significant way. Tinker and Katey love each other. They did from the very beginning. Although the outcome of their love is not what we might have hoped for, not what we might have expected, it proves to be the very definition of complete, the definition, as it were, of civility.

 

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

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The characters in Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us represent a number of different facets of a woman’s life, embodying everything from maternal love and disappointment to loyal friendship and betrayal. In a place and time in which caste and money are the truly governing factors of life, Bhima’s story, along with the stories of Sera and Maya, serves to expose the arbitrary nature of life, the universe, and our place in it.

While the cast is largely dominated by women, the men in the novel play a significant, if secondary, role in the story’s pacing. They do not fare well in the story. There are no male victors, no heroes, to rescue the damsels who are, in various ways, all in states of distress. In fact, most of the men are posthumous participants, active only in the women’s memories. Based on their characters, that’s the best place for them, as they tend to represent the most negatives parts of human nature.

Socioeconomic class acts as the governing force in this novel, keeping everyone where he or she is supposed to be in terms of behavior and interaction. While some characters, like Dinaz, rage against it, others, like Sera, seem to find it comforting that such a force exists to help them make sense of life and social interaction.

Maternity is also placed under the literary microscope here, and Umrigar examines even the harshest of maternal realities. Bhima’s relationship with Maya is troubled for the majority of the novel, but only because the emotions in which that relationship is rooted are so fierce. Bhima both hates and loves Maya, often simultaneously, because she is so committed to providing Maya with the opportunities requisite for a better life, one not mired in deceit, betrayal, and poverty. The flip side of that coin, however, is the relationship between Dinaz and Sera. Their relationship examines the effects of a mother’s relying too heavily on her children as the sole source of her happiness. In the end, that reliance only serves to reinforce earlier lies and bolster the boundaries that money and class so arbitrarily create.

Terminal Notes: Readers will find in The Space Between Us a raw examination of what life can do to those who are often undeserving of its wrath. The characters are, more often than not, the victims of circumstances beyond their own control, and the question then becomes whether they are better off by being blissfully ignorant, as in the case of Dinaz, or irreversibly aware, like Bhima.

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin

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Audiobook narrated by Lorna Raver

Women in history have gotten up to some pretty amazing things, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh is no different. She was educated, brave, daring, worthy of attention in her own right. But her achievements have all but fallen by the wayside, eclipsed by the shadow of her larger-than-life husband. His achievements are the ones we remember, the ones we are taught in school. In The Aviator’s Wife, however, Melanie Benjamin seeks to give voice to a woman whose guts and gumption not even her husband could match.

Benjamin’s work is one of historical fiction, largely biographical but fictionally personal. She seeks to lend a new perspective to the story of Charles Lindbergh, or “Lucky Lindy” as he is so often called. We see, through Anne’s eyes, a new perspective on the events of their lives, what it was like to be an early celebrity always in the spotlight, what it was like to have a child kidnapped and to have the whole experience chronicled by American media, what it was like to be married to someone who is emotionally unavailable. In some respects, these experiences are unfamiliar. Most of us will never know what it’s like to have the spotlight ever on us, watching every move, marking every fault and bad decision. In other respects, though, Anne’s story is one that’s been echoed by women across generations. She struggles with who she is (mother, wife, aviatrix, writer, lover) and who she wants to be. She questions whether she can wear so many hats all at once, whether anyone will ever remember her as anything other than “Charles Lindbergh’s wife.” In this way, Benjamin is able to capture the universality of some experiences, showing us that humanity is inescapable, regardless of the historical setting or the social context of our situations.

While the idea of having this new perspective is thrilling in some ways, making these historical figures more real to those of us who remember them only through textbooks, the unreliability of the narrator is a factor here, and at times readers may find themselves prompting a reminder that this account is fiction, even though it is based on real events and people.

For all its relevance to female life, some readers may find themselves frustrated with Anne’s apparent lack of backbone in the story when it comes to her relationship with her husband. She realizes fairly early on in their marriage that theirs is not one of equality and romance, and according to her narrative voice, she is at least somewhat bitter towards Charles throughout their whole marriage. But she never does anything about it, at least not in a way that Charles ever knows about. Call it the convention of the time, call it weakness, but Anne’s lack of backbone where her husband is concerned is nothing short of frustrating throughout the narrative.

Terminal Notes: Readers will be entertained by this version of Anne’s story, despite some unreliability and the tenuous relationship between reader and protagonist. While Anne’s inability to stand up to her husband in any real way is frustrating, she is also a surprisingly sympathetic character whose life is as worthy of consideration as her husband’s, albeit for different reasons.

A Train in Winter

ATraininWinterCaroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter tells the stories of the women who participated in and were largely responsible for the Resistance during the occupation of France during World War 2. They were publishers, writers, scientists, nurses.  They were mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and lovers. And they were absolutely crucial to the movement for which so many of them were willing to give up their lives.

The stories of the women are impossible to comment on. Their experiences embody a reality for which incomprehensible is an inadequate adjective. Their strength and the dignity with which they represented themselves and their country are the likewise the strength, arguably the only strength, of this book.

In terms of content, yes, Moorehead got this one right. Her depiction of occupied France and the ways in which she characterizes the women about whom she writes are moving and inspiring. However, the mechanical limitations of the book are enough to slow even the most rapacious of readers.

The book’s inconsistent pacing makes for a tough read, the first half of the book a tedious compendium of names and dates and vague character descriptions. At the book’s halfway point, however, the pacing increases rapidly, and the last half of the book is a quick read. In this case, the trudge up the hill of the narrative arc is in every way followed by a speedy slide into the book’s resolution. In order to get to that resolution, however, the reader must be willing to stick with the story.

Since reading is, in its most basic function, a form of communication, syntax is absolutely crucial for success. Moorehead’s sentence structure, however, leaves much to be desired. Varying sentence structure is undeniably important in good writing; however, when the reader is forced to constantly reread passages because of misplaced modifiers and awkward placement of dependent clauses, the overall success of the writing can be called questionable, if nothing else.

While the book is, overall, a success, it would have been nice to see more development of the women themselves, as the subtitle suggests, in the first half of the book. The details given in the first half of the book seem to barely skim the surface of their participation and importance to the French Resistance cause.

The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe

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Reading this book was a bit like watching someone trying to fly a kite for the first time: every now and then, a promising burst of energy wafts the story upwards creating intrigue and forward movement, but then just as quickly, the energy abandons the book, leaving the reader to reconcile the subplots to the main plot.

Speaking of which, the main plot in the book is excellent, an adept use of magical realism that is not intrusive. In fact, the magic in the book seems, for all intents and purposes, somewhat feasible. The momentum in Sibyl’s story (when considered independently from the rest of the text) is very fluid, and Howe makes excellent use of the cliffhanger device at the end of Sibyl’s sections.

The bits in the middle, though, are somewhat problematic. Their connection to the main plot is not often obvious, and quite often the reader is left to make the connection between the stories for him/herself, leaving much room for misinterpretation. Take, for example, Eulah’s and Helen’s experience aboard the Titanic. While it’s not often advisable to spell out everything for a reader, clarification is sometimes necessary, and that clarification is not obvious in the last section aboard the Titanic.

Despite its tangents, the book maintains its focus, or rather its controlled lack of it, with the help of the time period in which the story is set. On the heels of Titanic’s sinking and on the cusp of US entrance into WWI, the feeling of being out of control, something with which Sibyl seems to struggle, is genuinely realistic and perhaps lends itself as an excuse for some of the more problematic subplots in the story.

The House of Velvet and Glass will, for the most part, keep readers entertained despite some false starts and superfluous subplots (EX: Harlan’s experience with Rawlings), and readers will not be disappointed with the overall story.