A book review from The Movie Snob.
The Big Green Tent, by Ludmila Ulitskaya (2010; trans. 2015). This is a big old novel about life in post-Stalinist Russia. I liked it. At first, the book is a cohesive story about three boys who befriend each other around the time of Stalin’s death in 1956 and the teacher who inspires them to love Russian literature. But after a few chapters the novel gets fragmentary, jumping around in time and sometimes following other seemingly minor characters on long (but interesting) tangents. Many of the characters are involved in one kind of dissent or another, and the danger of exposure, arrest, and imprisonment is always right around the corner. I haven’t read that many Russian novels, but the characters in them always seem fascinatingly larger than life to me, especially in their passions and appetites. I read this 500+ page novel in fits and starts over a few weeks, so I was often confused about who the various characters were, but I don’t think it diminished my enjoyment of the story very much.
A new book review from the desk of The Movie Snob.
Home, by Marilynn Robinson (2008). It has been more than 10 years since I read and reviewed Robinson’s previous novel, Gilead, and now I wish I had read the two novels back to back, or at least closer together. Gilead was the autobiographical story of an elderly Iowa minister, and figuring large in his story were his dear friend Boughton and Boughton’s black-sheep son Jack. Home tells much of the same story, but this time from the perspective of Jack’s sister Glory, who is a close-up witness to the ripple effects of Jack’s sudden return to the tranquil pond of Gilead, Iowa. In my review of Gilead I took its narrator, Ames, to be a pretty saintly guy, but Home puts him in a rather different light. Anyway, I thought it took a while to get going, but ultimately Home packed a pretty good punch. I recommend it. And maybe I won’t wait 10 years to read Robinson’s 2014 follow-up, Lila.
A book review from the desk of The Movie Snob.
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson (2013). Apparently this was a #1 national bestseller. It’s got a weird gimmick, for sure. Ursula Todd is born in 1910 England. And she immediately dies, strangled by her own umbilical cord. Then she’s born again—but she’s not reincarnated as somebody or something else, in the usual way. Rather, it’s like God hit the rewind button, and so she’s born again on the same day, at the same time, to the same parents. Only this time, she’s not strangled by her umbilical cord. And so the novel progresses . . . until she dies again. And is born again, on the same day, etc., etc. At first I thought this was just a series of different possible stories about Ursula, but it gradually becomes apparent that the same Ursula is somehow living all these lives sequentially because she starts getting these weird feelings and premonitions and déjà vu type sensations that lead her to act differently and thus live out completely different lives. I thought parts of the book were very good, especially the parts about World War II (which she experiences in some very different ways in her various incarnations). But the Groundhog Day-style gimmick didn’t do much for me, and at the end I wasn’t sure whether poor Ursula will ever get out of her timeloop. So I’ll give it three stars out of five.
A new book review from The Movie Court.
The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer (2013). I enjoyed this novel about a group of teenagers who become friends at an artsy summer camp in the early 1970s and mostly manage to stay friends as they grow up and experience adulthood. The central character is Julie Jacobson, an awkward girl from an undistinguished background who is nevertheless adopted by a gang of cool kids. Rechristened “Jules,” our protagonist is intoxicated by her new friends and spends most of the rest of the book yearning to recapture those adolescent summers—and being a little envious of the seemingly awesome lives two of her friends make for themselves afterwards. Having recently been a fortysomething myself, I was perhaps naturally inclined to warm to the book’s themes of growing up and dealing with the pressures of adulthood, family, responsibility, loss, and mortality.
A new book review from The Movie Snob.
The Devil and Webster, by Jean Hanff Korelitz (2017). I thought I would like this recent novel more than I did. It’s about Naomi Roth, the president of a small, exclusive, and very liberal New England college called Webster. She’s a former 60s radical herself, so she’s fine with it when a bunch of students start camping out on the main campus lawn to protest the college’s decision to deny tenure to a popular (African-American) professor. Unfortunately, the college denied the fellow tenure because it discovered he had committed some serious plagiarism; unfortunately for President Roth, the college’s strict confidentiality rules preclude her from telling the students anything about the tenure process or decision at all. So the school year goes on, and the protest—led by a charismatic young Palestinian student—threatens to balloon out of control. Making matters worse, President Roth’s own daughter is a Webster student and very much a part of the protest. The story is entertaining enough, but I didn’t find the ending very satisfying—it somehow left me wanting more.
A book review from The Movie Snob.
Trieste, by Daša Drndić (2012). Drndić is a Croatian novelist and playwright, and this is a powerful and unusual novel about the Holocaust. The central character is Haya Tedeschi, an assimilated Jew who lives most of her life in a town on the fluid border between Italy and what eventually becomes Yugoslavia. She turns 20 during World War II, and she has an affair with a handsome German officer who is stationed nearby for part of the war. But the novel’s focus doesn’t really stay on her all that much; Drndić stuffs the novel with facts and digressions about World War II and the Holocaust, biographical sketches of various Nazis, and testimony from Holocaust survivors. She indicts the many bystanders who knew what was happening to the Jews passing through their cities and towns in railroad cars and did nothing. She indicts the Catholic Church for baptizing Jewish babies to save them from the Nazis but then refusing to return them to their parents after the war. There’s a lot of information about a secret Nazi project to increase the “Aryan race” by kidnaping promising-looking babies and then adopting them out to good German families. And near the end, Drndić instructs us about how 5,000 Norwegian women who had liaisons with Nazis during the war were sent to work camps after the war, and many of their babies were adopted out and subjected to all sorts of abuse. Anni-Frid Lyngstad of ABBA was the daughter of such a liaison (although her mother moved to Sweden in 1946 and they avoided the abuse)! It is a powerful and disturbing book.
A book review from The Movie Snob.
The Mountain of Kept Memory, by Rachel Neumeier (2016). My cousin Rachel has written another winning fantasy novel. This one centers on a brother and sister, Gulien and Oressa Madalin. They are the children of Osir Madalin, the remote and ruthless king of Carastind. But the kingdom is beset by enemies, and it seems that Osir has lost the support of the Kieba—a mysterious sorceress who lives in a mountain far to the east and who formerly aided Carastind in times of need. Osir seems disinclined to try to heal the rift, so Gulien and Oressa—who are young adults but sheltered and inexperienced in the ways of the world—take it upon themselves to seek the Kieba’s aid. This is an exciting tale, and Neumeier keeps the reader guessing about some of the main characters’ true intentions and agendas. Highly recommended for lovers of fantasy and magic!