My reading has taken me in all sorts of directions lately from a leper colony in Crete to the quiet lives of inhabitants of a Maine village to the luxurious and tragic lives of the Romanovs in Russia to the tales of a plural wife in Utah. Quite the variety, right? It’s one of the things I love best about reading – the worlds I can never experience first hand come to life on the printed page. Amazing how such a one-dimensional medium can add so much to my every day experience.
The Island by Victoria Hislop
Winner of the Galaxy British Book Award
Beginning with the account of Alexis Fielding, a young woman living in modern-day London, and her search to understand her mother’s hidden past, this book takes the reader back to the early 20th century when there was no cure for leprosy and people with the horrible disease were banished to a colony on the Greek Isle of Spinalonga. Hislop provides a great narrative history of Spinalonga and neighboring Plaka and the people who lived there up through the 1950s. The fears and mystery surrounding one of the world’s oldest and most misunderstood diseases are made very real as Alexis digs through her family’s history. Stylistically the novel does have some weaknesses, it’s overwritten, a bit melodramatic and wordy, but the story is a good one. Hislop manages to give a very interesting history of Spinalonga while informing the reader about the devastation of leprosy. Additionally she’s brought to life many aspects of living in a small Greek fishing village – the festivals, religious practices, small-town gossip, the yearning for a life that is somehow bigger. I would definitely recommend it – not as a great work of literature but as a fun, informative beach read.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
Ah New England! With its collection of strong characters and unique outlooks and beautiful seaside settings, the oceanside communities of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts seem to provide authors with a lot of material. Olive Kitteridge is set in a small fishing village in Maine and the stories are all related to one of its most complex inhabitants. Strout’s novel is made up of thirteen short stories, each in some way relating to Olive Kitteridge. The first story features Olive’s husband, Henry, the kindly town pharmacist. From the very beginning the reader is introduced to Olive as a large, formidable character, strongly opinionated, and at times cruel. She’s not very likable. Yet, as the stories continue the reader begins to gain a more clear understanding of the things that shaped this many faceted character. While she can scream at her unfailingly kind husband, screeching hateful words, she can just as easily be moved to tears at the sight of a young girl dying from anorexia. “Olive finished the doughnut, wiped the sugar from her fingers, sat back and said, ‘You’re starving.’ The girl didn’t move, only said, ‘Uh-duh.’ ‘I’m starving, too.’ Olive said. The girl looked over at her. ‘I am,’ Olive said. ‘Why do you think I eat every doughnut in sight?’ ‘You’re not starving’ the girl said with disgust. ‘Sure I am. We all are.’ Olive, in her gruff nature, will not suffer fools but can be deeply compassionate to those who are drowning in the cares and hurts of life. Yet she can just as easily be a part of those hurts. Her son carries the pain of being raised by such a tempestuous woman and their relationship is strained, at best. “‘Do you know, Ollie,’ he [Henry] said looking up, his eyes tired, the skin around them red. ‘In all the years we’ve been married, all the years, I don’t believe you’ve ever once apologized. For anything.’” The book is beautifully written, gritty, harsh, startling, dreary, hopeful. It has some very strong and offensive language, which means I won’t be recommending it to everyone. It’s real and makes no apologies that life is messy and difficult and downright ugly sometimes. But, like Olive, it also has moments of brilliance, moments when compassion wins and the need to be loved fulfilled.
Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie
While I was in Chautauqua, I mentioned to my sister-in-law that I was looking for a good book on the Romanovs. Well, she was the right person to ask. She’s doing her PhD in east European history and knows her stuff. She immediately pulled out the classic Nicholas and Alexandra. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve long been fascinated by Russian history, especially anything to do with the Romanov family. Their story is so complex and tragic. Drawing on copious historical research, Massie recreates the love affair of Nicholas and Alexandra and the story of their family. While it seems to be a popular trend now to depict the Romanovs as cruel, selfish, disinterested rulers, this story goes far beyond that preconception. In understanding how the Russian monarchy worked, one gets a picture of Nicholas as a ruler who was endlessly kind and compassionate, a loving father and husband, and a good leader in his own right who was often thwarted by a powerful network of advisors and a system designed to separate him from his people. Alexandra was a devoted mother pushed to the limit by her son’s battle against hemophilia. While Russia was suffering and revolution was fermenting, Nicholas and Alexandra battled to save their doomed family and monarchy. A product of an education that warned of the perils of representative government, Nicholas was raised to believe that he was his nation’s divinely appointed ruler and his writings reveal his great love of his nation and his desire for her best. In many incidents his natural instincts would have resulted in the best action but he was surrounded by powerful uncles and fellow rulers whose advice he could not ignore. Poorly prepared by his father, Alexander III, Nicholas was suddenly thrust into power when Alexander died suddenly at the age of 49. In many ways the Romanov’s story is one that makes a powerful argument for the forces of fate. These kindhearted people came to power at a time when nothing they could have done would have stopped what was about to happen. Yes, they bear some level of responsibility, but their end was tragic and unstoppable. The machinations of revolution had been set into motion long before Nicholas ascended the throne and tragic mistakes and their unforeseeable consequences meant that this family was doomed. I have so enjoyed this book – it’s stuffed with original source material, letters exchanged between Alexandra and her grandmother queen Victoria of England, journal entries of Nicholas, recollections from members of the court. It’s the fascinating stuff of well-told history. Highly recommended.
The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
I am just getting into this one and am looking forward to the story of Joseph Smith’s 19th wife.
And as an update to my last books entry, I finished The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. I must say I was highly disappointed. It’s terrible. It taught me nothing about Dutch painters. It was filled with historical errors. The main character, Greit, was repulsive – a know-it-all 16 year old whose experience in life does not go beyond the street she was raise on yet she knows how best to do anything, even to the point of knowing what details would perfectly finish Vermeer’s paintings. Chevalier places a girl with 21st century perceptions (and preconceptions) into a 17th century setting and expects the reader to just accept it. I guess I was so disappointed because I thought I would learn more about Holland during this time of artistic flowering, religious tension between Protestant and Catholic, and great cultural shifts. Instead Chevalier took fertile ground for a great story and threw it away. What a waste.
Howard’s End by E. M. Forster was superb. Reading a classic like this makes it difficult to take a lot of contemporary fiction seriously. To write at Forster’s level requires a deep understanding of human nature, a wide reading of literature, philosophy, history, and an acutely perceptive predisposition. Published in 1910 its a complex novel dealing with a rapidly shifting class system, the rules of love and marriage, an industrial revolution that is shaking up people’s understandings of society. Fantastic.
Fun stuff. Next up I’m looking for recommendations of books on Israel and Pakistan. I’ve had a growing interest in this volatile region and its history and will be tackling Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem in the next few weeks. Any other suggestions?