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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Book Review: "Empress of Asia"

“Empress of Asia” begins with protagonist, Harry Winslow, describing life as “bursts of activity that happen so quickly that we can’t even tell exactly what’s happening.”

In a sense, this story is Harry’s description of his own life’s “bursts of activity”. Beginning in the late 1930’s, Harry’s adult life begins when he leaves home to work on boats. As World War II unfolds, Harry is inadvertently drawn eastward and into the heart of the Japanese war in and around Singapore. It is an exciting couple of years for an otherwise mild-mannered, unambitious man, who is far more motivated by really great jazz than political idealism and freedom from fascism.

Shortly before she dies, at the very beginning of the book, Harry's wife Lily exhorts Harry to travel to Thailand in search of a long lost friend from the war. The book’s story unfolds as Harry recollects these defining wartime years of his life.

Harry is masterfully drawn as a painfully short-sighted Everyman drawn into extraordinary events. Encompassing an approximately seven-year stretch of time from about 1938 to 1945, it is primarily through the self-determination and ambition of others, that Harry goes where he goes and does what he does. Over and over, he is the hapless beneficiary of the ambition, courage, and cleverness of other people.

The concluding section of the book finds the elderly Harry in Thailand following the trail of crumbs Lily left for him to find his old friend. What he untimately discovers rattles everything he thought about his life since the war. Despite his dramatic time in Asia, before and after, because of fear and prejudices, he has lived a limited, shuttered life. Thailand wakes him up.

Had I a few less interruptions by my four kids, I would have gotten through “Empress of Asia” in two days instead of three. I stayed up late and woke up early to get in a few extra pages. Even days after finishing, I still have a palpable sense of the Malay Peninsula during World War II; that lesser known WWII arena of exotic heat, bugs, landscape, and people.

“Empress of Asia” was originally published in Canada in 2006; March 2008 will be its debut in the United States. Schroeder is a Canadian poet of some repute, and as a reader, it is clear to me that he has a poet's ear for the cadence of narrative and dialogue. His story flows indelibly from page to page – it is a hard book to put down and pick up, not because the reading is difficult (it isn’t), but because it is so utterly transporting. Schroeder’s subtextual use of dialogue and foreign dialects is masterful. (Note: Though the book doesn’t contain a glossary, there is a very good one on Schroeder’s website that is worth referencing.) Schoeder’s characters are refreshingly multifaceted – all have an authentic balance of strengths and weaknesses.

Towards the end of the book, Harry discovers bowls of live snakes and turtles for sale in a Thai market, and makes this telling observation about the will to survive: “Of course the snakes just slither around in the bottom but…. the turtles are stacked one on top of the other and in the fifteen seconds that I’m watching one of them drags himself to the top and flips onto the pavement!…. [I]f they’re all going to end up in the soup anyway, why should the [turtles] on the bottom give two shakes if the ones on top have a little more ambition? In the meantime the snakes just lay there wondering which minute is going to be their last, so which bowl would you rather have been in?”

Harry appears to be much more like one of the snakes, waiting passively along through events, but there are numerous ambitious turtles with whom he finds himself entangled and carried along, and, in the end, he survives. The reader is left to wonder, of the snake and turtle, which am I?

I definitely recommend “Empress of Asia”.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Advance Book Review: "Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout

I am not normally a fan of short stories. While I appreciate the technical abilities of the short story writer, I find “shortness” troublesome. Generally, the longer a book is, the more appealing. Consequently, I was initially leery of the descriptions of Elizabeth Strout’s newest novel, “Olive Kitteridge,” which calls itself “a novel in stories.”

All of the stories in this book occur in the town of Crosby, Maine. At the center of many of the book’s stories is the person, Olive Kitteridge, a retired teacher. In the stories that don’t feature Olive, her name may appear only once in an effort to tie it to the larger work. That the stories center on one town, and a limited number of that town’s inhabitants, who also reappear from time to time, I did not encounter my usual problems with short stories. This book gently reminded me of what is best about short-stories: a brief slice of a life, a snapshot that tells a complete-enough story. In having all these stories bound together, one feels a bit like the proverbial “fly on the wall”; a fly who may spend most of, but certainly not all, it’s time in one particularly interesting home (Olive’s).

I especially enjoyed reading about Olive in her post-retirement years, the ways in which she deals with other people and herself. In many ways, I can identify with Olive, having doled out bits of malice in angering situations; or having been soft and tender-hearted during others. Like Olive, I too have been both fool and sage.

I really enjoyed “Olive Kitteridge.” Olive is a complex person vacillating between viciousness and compassion. In the way all people are puzzles, so is Olive. In one story she does something deplorable, in another she potentially saves a life. People can never be fully known, merely experienced in bits and pieces, from which a general portrait may be formed. This book is a testament to the mystery that is humanity: why we do what we do, what motivates us, how even self-knowledge is warped and lacking, and how ultimately, all people are fundamentally incapable of seeing themselves as a whole. Olive also embodies hope: one is never too old for surprises.

Many of the “stories” in “Olive Kitteridge” are deeply profound and thought provoking. I will not be at all surprised when this book does very well. It’s structure is unusual; it’s message is penetrating and accessible and universal. Olive causes me to think of the many complex, and at times unlikeable, people in my own life in a different way. Strout is a master of revealing the many onion-like layers of interpersonal relationships. Halfway through “Olive Kitteridge” I went out and bought two of her other books. I am also tentatively considering reading some other short-story collections by authors whose novels I’ve loved.

Like any great book, “Olive Kitteridge” slightly shifts the way in which I look at the world and other people, and perhaps most importantly, myself.

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Top Five 2007 Reads

Now that 2008 has officially begun, the door has closed on the number of potential books that could have been read in 2007. In my December 13th post, I was up to 59, and lamenting the short stack of library books that I felt forced to read, and read quickly. I managed to squeeze in three more books before December 31st, and they were (in the order read):

  • "The Air We Breathe" by Andrea Barrett

  • "Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout (an Early Reviewers book, the review of which I'll post shortly; my copy was advanced)

  • "Water for Elephants" by Sarah Gruen (who didn't read this book last year?)

I looked through my book journal to pick out my five favorite reads of 2007. I based these choices simply on pure enjoyment of the story, or because they surprised me (something not many books can do). Most of these books have been around for awhile.

#5 "The Terror" by Dan Simmons

Set in the far north, this adventure story has a historical context: a fictionalized speculation of the doomed 1840s Arctic expedition led by Sir John Franklin. The account is brilliantly descriptive like all expedition literature should be, but as should be expected of a horror/sci-fi author, Simmons throws in some supernatural ingredients. This story worked for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. So great is my enthusiasm for this book, I even convinced a fellow Costco-shopper to buy it the other day. It's escapist, while also having historical elements.

#4 "Alas, Babylon" by Pat Frank

This is Cold War literature at its best. Originally published in 1959, most of this book occurs in a small Floridian community that has managed to be providentially upwind from atomic bomb fallout. Though a grim-sounding premise, and though it contains a convincing description of global nuclear war, this book is wonderfully hopeful and deserves to be read. My book club friend, Kathie, originally recommended it, saying she reads it once a year when she wants to be cheered up. Don't believe it? Take the challenge.

#3 "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card

I had been seeing this guy's sci-fi books everywhere, and "Ender's Game" in particular highly touted as a "classic" sci-fi book. Sci-fi is actually a new genre for me. I could never get interested in the techie, futuristic, alien-species storylines. But this book is so well-thought out, methodical without being boring, philosophical, and surprising that I absolutely loved it! I'm much, much more interested in reading sci-fi now, and have added many sci-fi authors to my "to read" pile.

#2 "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini

I liked "The Kite Runner," but unlike most people it didn't rock my world. There was some aspect of it I just couldn't get inside. However, Hosseini's second book did rock me. Characterized by women - daughters, lovers, mothers, sisters, friends - this was a story I could deeply identify with and read very quickly. My impression upon putting it down, after wiping away my tears, was that every woman should read it, perhaps every person interested in Middle-Eastern issues. It will evoke every emotion possible.

#1 "The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell

I've had this book on my shelf for a long time. Its title kept springing up on "must read" lists. At one point, I even had two copies; when I'd temporarily misplaced one, I couldn't sleep at night so went out and bought another. It didn't disappoint. The chronology of the story jumps back and forth between the past and the present circumstances, and for awhile the reader has an incomplete picture of events. Consequently, it can take awhile to understand what's going on and to become emotionally involved in the story. Anyway, this is a story about interplanetary travel, about religious faith, and the nature of God. It's heavy stuff and rendered with total genius. This is the kind of book that I can't stop thinking about. While the religious content won't appeal to everyone, it was very relevant to me; I was just blown away.

So, there ya go. The year's top five.

LibraryThing Early Reviewers

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