Tag Archives: fiction

“Hardcore Twenty-Four (A Stephanie Plum Novel)” by Janet Evanovitch

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Another romp through Trenton, NJ, and the wacky life of Stephanie Plum, bail bond enforcer and woman on the loose. Stephanie and her sidekick Lula are always tracking down miscreants, some of whom are dangerously antisocial. She’s helped by her three “boyfriends”, a police officer, a private security expert and a psychic superhero from another dimension. Everything goes wrong, as usual, but our heroine survives. Don’t stop writing, Janet. New Jersey loves you!

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“Father Goriot” by Honore de Balzac

Piketty (see blog post dated April 14) cites the novelist Balzac as providing insight into the impact of income inequality in France around 1820. Balzac had that and a great deal more on his mind! The plot of Father Goriot is wildly melodramatic. There’s a touch of Shakespeare – Father Goriot reminds one of King Lear, but with no good, loving Cordelia to offset the wiles of the two conniving daughters. And Father Goriot never really acknowledges his daughters moral failings.

Wikipedia describes Balzac as “one of the founders of realism in European literature”. He is sometimes compared to Dickens. His descriptions of people and the urban streetscape are so vivid, I felt like I was watching a movie the whole time I was reading. The dismal, poverty stricken boardinghouse he described made my skin crawl. Father Goriot is part of Balzac’s panoramic Human Comedy.

Balzac explores in detail the relationship between wealth and social status, especially as it related to women. The daughters of old Goriot always want MORE, and are willing to lie and take great risks to maintain appearances. Goriot was a working class entrepreneur, a pasta maker and a speculator in grain. He thought, when he married his daughters to men with aristocratic titles, that his troubles were over. He died penniless.

Not only is this book translated (from French) but it includes occasionally obscure and archaic concepts. I shared a confusing paragraph with a friend, who said my problem was lack of familiarity with the “theory of humours”. You know, what happens if you have too much “black bile”. “Humours” were used to explain both health and disposition. Best to just keep reading…

This is a book which showcases the problems of a society that encompasses great extremes of wealth and poverty. Would I want to live in the world he describes? No way!

Balzac deserves far more careful attention than I am giving him here. If your currently book choice category is “filling in the blanks in my literary education”, I highly recommend Balzac’s Father Goriot.

“Lavinia” by Ursula LeGuin

Ursula Leguin is described as an author who is “hard to categorize”. True! I’ve probably, in my random fashion, read about 25% of her works, often without realizing they originated from the same author.

My favorite of her books is The Dispossessed which is about a colony of anarchists shipped from earth to an uninhabited but (with hard work) livable planet. The main character is a scientist who cannot find intellectual peers among the struggling population of his native planet.

Lavinia was a disappointment. It is a retelling of Virgil’s Aenead, from the viewpoint of a character so minor she never speaks. I understand the desire to “own” a story by retelling it (hence the existence of fan fiction). In this case, the result is relatively lifeless.

But I still admire LeGuin! The Left Hand of Darkness is another very fine fantasy novel of hers. So if you haven’t checked out this author, you should do so, especially if you are in the mood for intelligent fantasy.

“The Hired Man” by Aminatta Forna

This very recent (2013) book is about civil war and the ways people respond to violence within their communities. It’s one of those books that makes me ask “why fiction”? Why not tell the truth, as completely as possible? Is the reading public burnt out on truth from war zones? Minor quibble…

Forna begins by creating her protagonist, an inscrutable man named Duro. He is educated and sophisticated beyond his chosen status in life, that of a small town “day laborer” who supplements his income by hunting. He lives alone with two hunting dogs, and is intensely tuned in to the hilly landscape around him. He is also intensely tuned in to the past, to memories and long ago decisions. He describes the past as being like a child imprisoned behind the walls of a room. Sometimes the child stirs and calls out…

I’m not familiar with the recent history of Yugoslavia, so sometimes I found the plot of The Hired Man disorienting. Forna does not specify people’s ethnic identities. I’m willing to assume she wanted the story to seem “universal”. Reading reviews on Amazon, I learned that plainly many readers disliked this approach.

Duro becomes hired man and tour guide to an English family (mother and two teenagers) who move into the empty “blue house” (which is practically a character) for a summer holiday. Interesting choice of family… The teenagers are unformed, in perpetual change, compared to their slightly stuffy, vaguely clueless mother, whose name is Laura.

Duro keeps all information about the recent (16 years previous?) civil war from the family, claiming his father and sister died in “an accident” and the fighting happened somewhere else. He begins to play dangerous games, using the family to stir painful local memories. For instance, he fixes an old car and encourages Laura to drive it. It reminds the village residents of the former owners, who disappeared during the conflict. Laura has no idea why people sometimes treat her with strange hostility.

I attended a discussion of The Hired Man with a local book club. One line of interpretation had to do with “tribalism”. This was defined as ethnic identification based on very, very long term tenure on land, hence, something possible in Europe or Africa, but not in North America except among indigenous people. An attempt to analyze racial tensions in the United States didn’t go very far. I felt like I was hearing an assertion of “it can’t happen here” which made me feel uncomfortable.

The name of Holocaust survivor Ellie Wiesel, who died in early July, was mentioned. How did he “come to terms” with what he witnessed during World War II? How did he become a leader and a “hero of human rights”? I was reminded of this quotation from Aeschylus:

“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

Wiesel transcended the Holocaust. He became wise.

I don’t think Duro was headed for transcendence. I think his fate was to be locked between vengeance and reconciliation, his life suspended and painfully incomplete.

But that’s just me, projecting into Forna’s astonishing novel. Some of us wondered if there may be a sequel. It’s hard to let go of the characters.

“Ride With Me” by Thomas R. Costain

When did historical fiction become such an active and popular genre? This book was published in 1944. The author, Thomas Costain, died in 1965 at the age of 80. Looking at a list of his books, I think read two others, “The Silver Chalice” and “Below the Salt”, when I was in high school.

“Ride With Me” uses a fictional newspaper writer to tell the story of an historical figure, Robert Thomas Wilson, a flamboyant, often disruptive British military officer in the Napoleonic Wars.

I tried, briefly, to find out a bit about the Napoleonic Wars. Some subjects simply can’t be reduced to a Wikipedia article! I was rapidly overwhelmed. Fortunately, the novel had enough of it’s own narrative drive for my ignorance not to matter.

This novel is a romance with some military history thrown in. Francis Ellery, the misfit eldest son of an aristocratic family, falls in love with a glamorous, passionate ex-patriot French woman living in London. Over the years, he rescues her from a variety of dangers, then is finally rewarded with love and marriage.

This is very high quality historical fiction, with wonderful atmosphere and period details, and if you get tired of what contemporary authors are writing, I suggest you try Costain as an alternative.

“Home: A Novel” by Marilynne Robinson

This book covers the same time period and follows the same characters as the author’s Gilead, which I wrote about on May 16, 2016. Same story, different perspective, but Robinson managed, once again, to surprise me.

The Boughton family has eight children. The sons receive the names of family and friends, but the daughters are named for theological concepts – Faith, Hope, Grace and Glory. Big message right there – men and women fill very different roles in life. Seven of the Boughton children fulfill their loving parents’ expectations and grow into responsible, productive and apparently happy adults.

But then there’s Jack… He never “fits in”, always defies expectations. He fathers a child out of wedlock, and leaves, abandoning the child, the mother (still almost a child herself), his family and the community of Gilead. His father is grieved, angry and guilt stricken. He focuses intensely on Jack, who has almost no contact with the family.

At the start of the book, Jack comes home. Home is told from the perspective of Glory, the youngest daughter, who returns to Gilead in the early 1950s at age 38, to care for her aging father, just before Jack finally returns. Glory had worked as a high school teacher. Her personal life included a long, long engagement to a man she lately learned was married. At 38, she is a sad, thoughtful woman.

The question posed by this book is whether any redemption is possible for Jack. At the end of the book, Jack is still suffering. It’s less clear whether he still causes others to suffer.

Next I will read Lila; another perspective, I believe, on this Midwestern American version of the prodigal son. I’ve started to read Robinson’s essays. Stay tuned!

“Uniting Enemies” by Mary Ann Trail

This newly released novel has a great plot! It caught my attention and I powered right through it. With historical fiction, it’s hard to know what you are getting. I would describe this book as 60% fiction and 35% historical. The odd 5%? Parts read more like a mystery than anything else. Who’s the bad guy??

The historical setting is the reunification of England and Ireland in 1801, but most of this book is about family and romance. The heroine, Marion Coxe, is trying to protect her four year old twin nephews from politically motivated abduction. She has two love interests – one from the past and one new to her life. The resolution of this shapes the outcome of the book.

The only time I felt the 21st century intrude was on the issue of social class. Some of the servants were too “good” and too accomplished, causing the aristocrats to question their own prejudices. It could happen, I suppose…

This book is described as the first in a series. The author certainly has strong characters and situations to build on, and I look forward to further adventures.