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

TheCorrections

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 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.

The Aftermath: A Character Sketch

Inside him is a pool, black in its depth, smooth, dangerous. It is composed of the feelings he’d rather not have, emotions he’d rather not feel, that which has been relegated but remains unavoidable. Most of the time the pool lies still behind the mask of what he wants people to see, the impression he wants them to have. But sometimes a pebble of reality falls through the cracks. Sometimes something from outside wakes the deep inside and wakes that which is better left sleeping.

When small truths penetrate the surface, when he’s made to confront himself, the pool becomes a maelstrom, violent in its intensity, ready to swallow whole whatever is nearest and dearest. Then eventually the water calms. He returns to his normal state but more alone, and those of us who became collateral, that which could be sacrificed, are spat out of the vortex on a side unfamiliar to us, left to wonder where there is left to go and if we can recover.

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Reading Unpacked: How Reading Helps to Cure My Travel Envy

In his song “The Inner Light,” George Harrison wrote, “Without going out of your door, you can know all things on Earth.” I realize he adapted the idea from the Taoist Tao Te Ching and that he is actually speaking about enlightenment, but it sure does make me feel better when I see my empty suitcase shoved in the back of my closet.

The thing is sometimes I feel like everyone I know has been somewhere worth going to, and I can’t help feeling left out. Sure, I’ve been to some cool places:

NewYork

 

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But the truth is I can’t help feeling like I’m missing out on something, like there’s this big wide world out there that I haven’t seen and everybody else has (maybe a little bit of an over exaggeration, but just go with me on this).

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Typically, when I start feeling a bit bored and blue, I turn to my books. What better way to forget your own petty annoyances than to get involved in someone else’s fictional ones, right?

Therein lies the Ah-ha! Moment when I realize I couldn’t be more mistaken about my lack of expedition experience.

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I am a firm believer that reading is the only way to get anywhere without going anywhere. Except maybe to the local library or bookstore. This one is my favorite.

Anyway, when I start getting travel envy, I think of all the places my books have taken me and feel an immediate sense of relief, not because I’m proving that I’ve been somewhere, but because my vision of what these worldly places should be is untainted by the experience of reality.

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 Take The Shadow of the Wind.

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It’s one of my favorites, a book I’ve returned to multiple times. In its pages I’ve wandered the streets of Barcelona with Daniel. I’ve seen its best parts. I’ve seen its dark parts, too, at least the way Zafon paints them. And I have to say that the Barcelona I see in my mind is one I have fallen in love with, especially the parts that may or may not really be there (like the cemetery of forgotten books—if you don’t know what it is, you should definitely find out).

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I’m sure the real Barcelona is lovely. I even wanted to go there for awhile (I still haven’t ruled it out.). Then I realized that going there would force me to sacrifice the city I’ve constructed for myself because you know what they say: once you’ve seen something, you can’t unsee it. And I’m just not sure I’m ready to relinquish the fictional city I love for a real city I honestly don’t know much about. Call it fear. Call it rationalizing. Whatever.

There are a lot of reasons for a lot of people to disagree with me about this. They’ll say it’s a cop-out, that I’m just trying to find a way, any way, to make myself feel better for being state-bound. I suppose there’s probably some truth to that. If someone handed me a plane ticket and said, “Go,” I don’t think I’d say no. But that’s not really the point, is it?

The point, my friends, is this: we are unbelievably lucky, those of us who know what it is to see so clearly in our minds something we’ve never actually seen in real life, because when resources or circumstances prevent it, we are still able to whisk ourselves away to stories, lives, and places infinitely more interesting than our own. So I’m not suggesting a forfeiture of travel in favor of the couch in the living room (although that couch is pretty darn comfy and doesn’t require a passport or a suitcase). What I’m saying is that the stories we read are both a consolation and a prize, but not a consolation prize. They allow us the pleasure of experience AND the beauty of imagination. And who knows? Sometimes what we imagine can feel as good as the real thing.

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