Sparked by Words

Archive for the ‘Alphabet’ Category

T is for The Time Traveler’s Wife

I was completely spellbound by The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger’s debut novel. It was a story that seized me by my heart and imagination and didn’t let go for over five hundred pages and many hours of reading. It begins with Clare’s voice: It’s hard being left behind. I wait for Henry, not knowing where he is, wondering if he’s okay. It’s hard to be the one who stays… Long ago, men went to sea, and women waited for them, standing on the edge of the water, scanning the horizon for the tiny ship. Now I wait for Henry. He vanishes unwillingly, without warning. I wait for him.

I’ve been in love. Sometimes that means being left at the margins, wondering about the man I love, the parts of him he won’t reveal, waiting for him to come to me, to talk with me. Worrying about the state of our relationship. Clare has my thoughts in her throat.

Henry speaks next: How does it feel? How does it feel? Sometimes it feels as though your attention has wandered for just an instant… I am always going, and she cannot follow.

Is this how my husband feels about us, that he must leave, at least emotionally, and always leave without me? Is this the mutable state of all relationships, that we move not so much together as in close proximity to each other and sometimes in different spheres altogether?

Love stories are a staple of book plots and often boringly predictable. Not so the love story in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife.  Its transcendent circumstances lift its characters well beyond the bonds of earth’s calculable orbit and launch them into a world where calendars can’t determine the time of year, and presence in one year won’t predict continuity. The book follows the relationship of Clare and Henry, a couple who barely stay in touch with each other physically yet remain loyal and infatuated forever – both before and after they’ve met. Nothing in this world or outside of it will ever interrupt the love that binds them, not even Henry’s inability to remain in his wife’s presence for any length of time.

Back and forth between Clare and Henry, the story navigates the complexity of their relationship, in and out of various time periods. The lovers confront each other at different moments of their lives, not always recognizing who they are. Clare is a child. Henry is an adult in his prime. Finally they are at a compatible age to marry and so they do. Then they are apart. Clare, old now, waits. Henry, in trouble, hopes to return to her. In Niffenegger’s deft hands, time is neither permanent, reliable, nor linear but a malleable element to be bent for the purpose of describing the depth of their romance.

Henry suffers greatly for the disorder that causes him to jump in and out of time periods without warning, often landing him in perilous situations, unclothed, vulnerable. His jumps leave him confused, injured, pursued, accused of crimes, and uncertain of his future, even if there will be a future. The one thing he can count on is Clare’s steadfast love, the quality of constancy that brings him back to her.

Anyone who has ever felt the despair of betrayal or of a broken relationship will be moved by the endurance of Henry and Clare’s love, he who meanders in and out of their lives, she who waits devotedly. No one will experience the fabricated genetic disorder that precipitates Henry’s time traveling, but all of us have felt the depth of the couple’s passion. Or long to. Between the book’s covers is a soaring sci-fi/fantasy romance twisted inside a freakish yet compelling storyline.

I’ve read that Niffenegger wrote the book at a time that she was questioning her own relationships. She was also influenced by her father who traveled often during her childhood.

If you’ve seen the movie, but have not read the book, read the book. If you wait for love or have been fortunate to have found it, read the book. And to all others – read the book.

The Time Traveler’s Wife won the Exclusive Books Boeke Prize awarded in South Africa and follows this award given to many other prestigious books, most of which I’ve also read. In other words, a book in excellent company.

I look forward to learning about your favorite T fiction books.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for T:

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Tar Baby by Toni Morrison

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

A Time to Kill by John Grisham

The Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

To the End of the Land by David Grossman

A Town like Alice by Neville Shute

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

 

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and MacAdam/Cage

 

 

S is for Song of Solomon

I picked up Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison at the supermarket when my sons were very young, probably five or six years after its publication. Standing at the checkout line, I read enough to be hooked. Long aware (in general) of the terrible injustices suffered by African Americans, this book was an astonishing revelation to me. Not only did it depict a lifestyle I’d never imagined, but Morrison proved a brilliant storyteller with characters who engaged me with their originality, prose that transformed ordinary moments to sublime experience, and a plot that revealed truths about who we are as Americans. This is a book worthy of giving up common pursuits to settle into reading. Everything else can wait while you are taken to communities in our country you may have never before noticed. While you are lured by characters evil, noble, or conflicted, language as much poetry as prose, and social injustice that will make you cringe.

It begins with a man in a blue cape standing atop Mercy Hospital in a town in Michigan, intending to fly across Lake Superior. Among the crowd waiting to witness his flight is Ruth, the daughter of the first black doctor in the city and pregnant, resting on the hospital steps, unable to be admitted because she is black. When the man who believes he can fly leaps to his death, Ruth is admitted to the hospital, and the first black child is born there. So begins the life of Milkman Dead, a child marked by one strange twist of fate after another. When at age four, Milkman finds he can’t fly any more than the man who leapt to his death, “he lost all interest in himself.”

Not really, but he lost the compass directing his best interests, and for many years Milkman is torn between choosing an easy life of criminal tendencies, and the respectable life to which he might aspire. He is loved by his mother and by his aunt Pilate, his father’s sister, a decent and honorable woman despite many hardships.  Persuaded by rumors his father promotes, he and his best friend, Guitar, plan to steal the gold they are sure Pilate harbors in her house. When that proves to be false, Milkman goes off in search of his roots. One of his discoveries is that the legendary Solomon who flew back to Africa to escape slavery is in fact his own great-grandfather. Flight is a constant objective as a means of escaping injustice or discovering riches, and the eventual outcome of the book reflects this quest.

Pilate is the other predominate character in the story, her indomitable spirit a guide post and anchor to the very best of human endeavors. She remains stalwart after the theft of her strange green bundle, said to hold gold, and the death of her beloved but lovelorn granddaughter. People of lesser spirit would succumb to a bitter reclusion or angry aggression but Pilate remains an independent and kind woman who nurtures the greatness within all people. Including Milkman.

The story is rich with characters whose lives are unlike anyone I’d ever known, circumstances I couldn’t imagine, and metaphors and references that stretch a reader’s perception beyond the obvious surface connections. It opened my sheltered eyes to a culture I’d only glimpsed as an outsider. Morrison uses magic realism, local myths, children’s nursery rhymes, Biblical and classical tales, and songs as the means of conveying a multi-layered story. The plot doesn’t follow a traditional chronological order, yet it never left me stranded for explanation. Even the perverse characters generate sympathy for the human frailties that beckon their worst behaviors.

I won’t tell you the ending.  In truth, I’ve told you very little of the story.  Read the book and discover a journey within yourself as you follow the journeys of these memorable people in this remarkable landscape in a country said to offer equality to all people.

Song of Solomon was published in 1970 but its depiction of African Americans seeking their rightful place in a predominantly racist white society tragically compelling today. In some ways it’s a story of a young man coming of age, finding himself and establishing the adult he will become. In that sense, it’s one of the legions of similar stories, always interesting, but almost never as well written as Morrison’s book whose writing exponentially transcends ordinary.

Song of Solomon was the first Morrison book I read. I went on to read Sula, The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Tar Baby, and it’s because this book introduced me not only to a remarkable story but also to the monumental body of work of a commanding author that I chose it for my S selection.

Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978. Morrison has also won the Pulitzer for Beloved in 1987 and was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for S:

 

Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo

The Sand Pebbles by Robert Wise

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosney

Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

A Separate Peace by John Fowles

The Seventh Beggar by Pearl Abraham

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter by Peter Manseau

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

Sotah by Naomi Ragen

South of Broad by Pat Conroy

Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovksy,

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

 

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Alfred Knopf

 

R is for The River Midnight

Time grows short at the end of century, like winter days when night falls too soon. In the dusk, angels and demons walk. Who knows who they are? Or which is which…Time is a trickster in Poland. In Warsaw they have electric lights. On the farms, peasants make their own candles. And in Blaszka? There, time juggles fire, throwing off sparks that reach far into the past and spin toward the future. But shh, we can’t talk, now. The story is about to start.*

Thus opens the curtain on Lilian Nattel’s The River Midnight, a grand tale about the fictional Jewish shtetl (little town) of Blaszka at the end of the nineteenth century. It’s a year of ritual and miracle, of friendship and betrayal, of yearning and fulfillment. Also the lifetime of a Jewish community surviving the struggles of existence on the spiked tail of Russian-occupied Poland.

At the heart of this story are four vilda hayas, the young wild girls with dreams of freedom, love, and the future. Hanna-Leah, Faygela, Zisa-Sara, and Misha run to the woods outside the village to dance, sing, collect wild mushrooms, and share secrets, untamable as teenagers everywhere. As they grow up they accept their places in the community, each with an outlook reflecting her position.

Hanna-Leah, a talented cook who always does what is right, marries the butcher but is unable to bear children. She is envious of her best friend, Faygela, the would-be intellectual who has six children as the wife of the baker. Always kind-hearted Zisa-Sara follows her husband to New York where they both die in a terrible factory fire. Their orphaned children, daughter Emma and a son, return to Blaszka to be raised by the sensible Alta-Fruma. Misha, the most outspoken and independent of the four vilda hayas who flaunts disdain at all useless rules, divorces after a brief marriage. She lives alone near the river, becoming the village midwife and the person to whom everyone turns when they desire a potion for special needs of inciting romance, building strength, or overcoming illness.

Blaszka is also populated by rabbis, water carriers, busybodies, prophets, gypsies, drunkards, mysterious strangers, the vulgar, and the refined. Some folk are noble, some are vulnerable, and some pious. Each contributes an essential, memorable element, no matter how small. You will recognize all of them.

It’s soon discovered that Misha is pregnant by a man she refuses to identify. Gossip moves along the lifeline of the village as certainly as the meandering current of the adjacent river. Villagers speculate who might be the father but are met by her silence. Misha’s painful labor provides a tender scene at the end of the story. I haven’t spoiled it by telling you that much because what ensues is a bit of a miracle in itself, given that the birth falls on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.

At times the book reads like a fairy tale, rich with Jewish nuance and superstition. At other places it resonates with the history of Jewish Europe.  In some passages it blares like a bawdy song one might hear in a saloon where the drunkards mingle with those who might be prostitutes, angels, or conmen. Its scenes of magical realism will remind readers of the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, I. L. Peretz, or Sholem Aleichem who also wrote of the European Jewish communities lost to World War II. Always, Nattel’s sensitivity to universal relevance is captured within the intimacy of a place so small that only a few hundred souls live there.

Nattel based her book on the stories her family told when they emigrated from Poland to Canada. She researched for years, reading dozens of relevant books, and included a glossary at the end to help the reader understand the Yiddish dispersed throughout. The glossary is essential for those unfamiliar with the mixing of two languages. I was also raised with Yiddish words and phrases sprinkled by my family as well as stories about shtetl life, and I still found it illuminating.

This is one of the very few books I’ve read six times (the other is To Kill a Mockingbird) and I’ll one day read it again. The quality of Nattel’s writing and the strength of her characters draw me back to the pages to follow the vilda hayas’ hilarious shenanigans and harrowing predicaments. At each reading, I’ve tried to determine who are the Director, the Traveler, and the Boss, and every time I’ve reached a different conclusion. The first time I read the book I had just completed writing the “final” draft of a novel that also tells the story of a fictional Polish shtetl and the strong women who live in it. (My story is in no way even wanly derivative of Nattel’s book, by plot or characters. My “final” draft was in no way final, either.)

The very last words of the book are once upon a time. How enchanting is that?

The River Midnight won the Martin and Beatrice Fisher Jewish Book Award in Fiction in 1999.

I look forward to learning about your favorite R fiction books.

 

*Just so you know, this passage is the very beginning and the very end of the prologue of the book.

 

 

Other books that were serious contenders for R:

 

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

The Reader by Bernard Schlink

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

The Red Pony John Steinbeck

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

Room by Emma Donoghue

Roots by Alex Haley

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Run by Ann Patchett,

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Scribner

 

Q is for Queen of the Summer Stars

Queen of the Summer Stars by Persia Woolley is book two of her Guinevere Trilogy, and a story that continued my passion for romantic Arthurian legends. Woolley’s unique take is to present the famous tale from Guinevere’s point of view. The series takes us from the princess as an adventurous youngster in book one, through the years of her romance and marriage to King Arthur and her attraction to Lancelot in book two to her final years in the third book when the legend of Camelot and the Knights of the Round Table have become the stuff of the past.

It all started for me with the 1967 movie Camelot, the musical starring Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Harris, and Franco Nero. I couldn’t get enough of singing (badly) the songs and imagining myself so loved by two men. Of course I was very young then and in love with all handsome men, none of whom were in love with me. The movie was a perfect foil for the alluring alter ego I longed to be. Several years later when my marriage had become nearly impossible*, the books fed my craving to be adored. I was smitten by the adventure and fantasy of a world of magic, power, quests, nation building, and a beautiful woman at the heart of it all. I can’t even remember which book of the list below I read first, but I know I read several out of order.

The essential Arthurian legend concerns Arthur Pendragon who is guided by the magician Merlin to claim his birthright to the High Throne of Britain, a land of warring lesser kings. The beautiful Guinevere becomes his bride and the High Queen but eventually she falls in love with  Lancelot, supposed to be Arthur’s most loyal and noble knight. Thrown into the mix is Arthur’s jealous and evil sister Morgan le Fey and her dour son Morgause, as well as the quest for the Holy Grail. Arthur is determined to establish the strength of the Round Table of fellow leaders to preserve the trembling country and protect it from foreign invaders as the Roman Empire collapses around them. The dream of enduring peace drives Arthur, and Arthur needs Guinevere at his side.

Ideas of faith, passion, sacrifice, fidelity, betrayal, rebellion, determination, schemes, and murder accelerate the action. Guinevere, the symbol of greatest femininity and desire, despairs of ever having the one thing she most yearns for but cannot achieve: a child of her own. Though she is revered by everyone, she also suffers sorrow and self doubt. Every character is majestic but flawed, except for those who are well known to be simply evil and unredeemable.

This second book focuses on the best known parts of the legend, so I was familiar with the characters and the outcome. Woolley describes the complex political intrigue in detail but also lingers over the beauty of the land itself as well as the castles, dwellings, and aspects of daily life in the sixth century. Her fresh and masterful approach kept me eagerly turning pages, and then seeking the other two volumes in the series.

At a time in the world where greed, manipulation, and lies promote agendas to protect the powerful and sublimate the common man, the Arthurian legends speak to noble causes. Though the premise of a perfect world falters at the end because of human foibles, it’s nice to know there are ideals to which we may ascribe. If I had to describe Queen of the Summer Stars in a word I’d say sumptuous. Ah, queens and kings, campaigns and secrets, myths and reality – these books have it all.

I look forward to learning about your favorite Q fiction books – or your favorite Arthurian books.

 

*We’ve struggled, but the marriage remains intact; just celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary.

 

 

Other books based on the Arthurian legends or related ancient Britain topics:

Child of the Northern Spring, and Guinevere:The Legend in Autumn: books one and three of the Guinevere Trilogy by Persia Woolley

The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, The Wicked Day, all by Mary Stewart (I haven’t read The Prince and the Pilgrim, her final book in the series)

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley (there are six other books in her series, but I haven’t read them)

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

Sherwood by Parke Godwin (about Robin Hood, but similar in its romantic fantasy tone)

Oddly, I have not read Le Morte D’Arthur by Thomas Malory.

 

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Sourcebook Landmark

 

 

 

P is for The Poisonwood Bible

 

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver captivated me from the prologue where a mother traipses through an African jungle with her four young daughters.  Orleanna Price, the wife of a zealous Baptist minister from Georgia, knows she is an oddity, a white woman in a Belgian Congo village in 1960. She seems to be speaking from a distant time and place, perhaps from her own grave. Her gimlet eye sees the jungle with its voracious ants and fecund flora, but more, she sees her internal life riven with conflict, acquiescence, and inadequacies that have cost her most dearly.

If Orleanna is quiet and submissive to her husband, it is he, Nathan Price, who is loudest and most obstinate. Intending to convert the native Congo inhabitants, he attempts to convince them of Christianity’s truth by pointing to the Bible and describing it as bangala, a Kilanga word he believes to mean “precious.” But his pronunciation is incorrect, and thus he declares the Bible to be “poisonwood.” It’s just the beginning of everything he gets wrong about Congo, from the language to the people to the customs to how hungry the community is to the coming revolution that will jettison colonialism in the Congo – and will alter his family’s course, one by one. Yet Nathan listens to no one and his obdurate convictions have catastrophic consequences for everyone.

Along with Orleanna, the four daughters tell the stories of their lives in Africa in alternating chapters. Rachel, the oldest at fifteen, the most beautiful and the most materialistic, is also cynical, selfish, and mixes metaphors hilariously. She yearns to be a normal teenager, something not possible in a jungle. Yet as an adult she carves out a unique livelihood managing a deluxe hotel in the French Congo, albeit with a bit of dishonesty, forgoing the luxurious American life she once imagined.

Leah, fourteen, is hard working, a natural leader, and a fearless idealist who most shares her father’s religious passion. She relishes education and especially Anatole, the man who is her teacher and whom she will marry. She is the daughter who becomes part of the fabric of Africa in the most authentic way, by moving with her husband and their four sons to Angola. Invigorated by a vision of a just society, she and Anatole help Angolan citizens reclaim their heritage and their country.

Adah cites her twin Leah’s dominant personality for stealing more than her share in the womb, leaving Adah to be born mute and crippled. Because she does not waste time trying to vocally describe what is happening around her, she is a brilliant observer. Adah returns to the United States, is healed of both her infirmities, and becomes a dedicated physician who studies viruses, an apt occupation for someone influenced by early life in Africa. She is the one who comforts Orleanna in her mother’s old age.

Ruth May at five is the baby, adorable and wise beyond her years. She makes friends with the tribal children, teaching them to play Mother May I, a game that becomes a plaintive elegy toward the end of the book. Ruth May is beloved by everyone in Kilanga, but it is her fate that turns the family inside out, that shows Nathan how much he has failed, and that destroys his mission to Congo.

The story exposes how completely wrong the Western world has been about Africa. From misunderstanding its rich language to its beguiling and sometimes horrific customs to assuming the indigenous people are bereft of intelligence or self-determination. Nathan of course is symbolic of wrong judgments at every turn, yet Kingsolver’s masterful writing prevents him from being a one-dimensional cartoon. However inappropriate his agenda for Congo, he is sincere in his faith and in his quest. We weep with him when he realizes he has failed to baptize his youngest child, but we do not mourn when we learn of his death.

Of my many favorite quotes, I begin with this from Orleanna: Some of us know how we came by our fortune, and some of us don’t, but we wear it all the same. There’s only one question worth asking now: How do we aim to live with it?

From Rachel: I shut my eyes tight, but even so, the tears ran down. I wept for the sins of all who had brought my family to this dread dark shore.

From Leah: Our journey was to be a great enterprise of balance. My father, of course, was bringing the Word of God – which fortunately weighs nothing at all.

From Adah: It is true I do not speak as well as I can think. But that is true of most people, as nearly as I can tell.

From Ruth May: If somebody was hungry, why would they have a big fat belly? I don’t know.

Each of these quotes, all of them early in the book, exposes a significant part of this multi-layered story and also reveals the personalities of the speakers. What moved me the most was how arrogant and assuming Nathan Price was, as well as a few other white people. Though some of the Congolese were confrontational or untrustworthy, as would be some people in any given population, this is their land. The richness of their culture sustains them even in hard times yet Price sees them only as ignorant folks who need agricultural education and Christianity to better their lives. He is unable to understand that what they need is nothing he has to offer, but freedom from a dominating and patronizing European government.

Written in chapters that echo the books of the Bible, each section shows the dissolution of impractical dreams and the creation of work that might truly sustain the inhabitants while respecting their history. The book ends with an epilogue that bookends the story. The mother and her four daughters walk through an African market, recalling the walk through the forest made decades earlier. Everything is changed, of course, everything about their lives and about Africa is different. As Ruth May notes, “Every life is different because you passed this way and touched history. Everyone is complicit.”

It is a long story. My regret is that I came to the end of it and had finally to say good bye to the country, to the Price family, and to the Africans who peopled the land. Do not think I have already told you the whole story. I have told you nothing. Only Barbara Kingsolver can tell you the story of The Poisonwood Bible. Make yourself comfortable, open the book, immerse yourself in its pages. Read.

I look forward to learning about your favorite P fiction books.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for P:

Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson

A Painted House by John Grisham

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

Peace like a River by Leif Enger

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Prague by Arthur Phillips

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain

The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Perennial

O is for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn was first published in Russian in 1962, in English in 1963. I originally had another book in mind for O, (On the Road) but given the current political situation, I feel this is a book to remind us of the dangers of a totalitarian government. It’s as hard a book to read as any, not for its length (it’s little more than a novella at 150 pages) but for the presentation of the brutality of life in the Soviet prison system. It portrays a government that represses people not for crimes they’ve committed but for political advantage and retribution, raising a virtual cudgel over a populace with little recourse for defense, terrifying people who understand that the next person accused might be them.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a political prisoner, a man falsely convicted of spying at the end of World War II. This one day in his life is a day like every other, a day closer to his freedom if he can survive the quixotic events that threaten his safety at every moment. He’s woken up ill, one more misery to add to his usual bleak condition. Too late for a place at the infirmary, he trudges with the rest of his unit out of the camp to a construction site. There he engages in the mindless work of building a brick wall. In the Soviet gulag, building a wall in such freezing temperatures is a Sisyphean feat. Nothing works correctly unless the laborers work at a feverish pitch, tasks nearly impossible to achieve because of the primitive quality of their tools and materials.

Shukhov is always hungry, tired, cold, and undernourished. His bed is uncomfortable, his clothing inadequate, his shoes thin, his life monotonous, and he has little to look forward to except surviving this one day. To anticipate anything else is futile; the gulag is not a place for daydreams but for enforced effort. Yet he fosters friendships among other prisoners and guards, trades favors for food, and carefully navigates a complex hierarchy that safeguards him from extra punishment. He manages to augment his small stash of contraband. He engages in conversations about the meaning of life, whether there is a heaven, and how small luxuries comprise happiness in the gulag.

Throughout the day, we see the prisoners reduced to insignificant parts of the system by which they’re incarcerated. Shukhov and the others are treated as though they are disposable, with only superficial concern for their well-being. They awake to a relentless regimen of being identified as a number, getting searched, marching across a frozen landscape, enduring manual labor in subfreezing conditions, and marching back to the dormitories at night. Eating is a crucial part of the day and Shukhov manages a few extra rations, a blissful moment. Lying in his bunk at night, he counts the number of days left to bear before he will be free. It’s been one day, like all the rest, and a day unlike anything I’ve ever encountered.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in fact a prisoner of the gulag and wrote about it in other books, notably The Gulag Archipelago. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the only book he was able to publish in the Soviet Union. All his other books were published in the West because of the political controversy surrounding his work. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for the body of his work, but like fellow Russian, Boris Pasternak, did not accept it for fear of reprisal at home. Though the book appears to be critical of the Soviet system, Solzhenitsyn’s political position about his country was complicated, a situation I’m not qualified to address.

I remember being so transfixed by this grim, spare account of Soviet incarceration that I sat at a rock concert with my hands around the book, reading. Certainly I was shocked by such hardship imposed on men but also by the callous attitude of a system intent on meting out punishment without or regard for human rights. Every word beat against my heart. To live in a country like the United States where human rights are analogous to our concept of democracy, and compare it to a totalitarian government where people are less important than bricks, horrified me. The book anchored my sense of the inalienable right of justice not only because our Constitution says we are so entitled, but because my understanding of humanity anchors my foundation of decency. That our current president abridges such rights without regard for the Constitutional independence of the three branches of government and without consequence makes me fear for our democracy. It all beats against my heart.

I look forward to learning about your favorite O fiction books.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for O:

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Old Yeller by Fred Gipson

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Signet Classic

 

N is for Night in Shanghai

Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones is historical fiction based on 1930’s Shanghai, the period in Chinese history where it is shackled by the corruption of controlling gangs to the period where it is invaded by the Japanese during World War II, finally reclaimed by Chinese leadership, only to be shackled again, now by the unforgiving ideology of communism. Against this backdrop two people of differing backgrounds fall in love. It is, like all great affairs, an unlikely attraction of doomed passion, but it is also the stuff of love, lust, longing, and legend.

Song Yuhua is the beautiful, intelligent, and well educated translator for Du, the Chinese crime boss who runs the city’s successful nightlife, at a time when everyone comes to nightclubs to play, sing, and dance, especially to the sensation known as jazz. The subservient role of women in China is well documented, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that Song was given in bondage to Du in order to cover her father’s gambling debts. She navigates a violent Shanghai underworld where loyalty to the kingpin rewards her with comfort and admiration but retribution for betrayal may cost her life.

Thomas Greene is a young African-American man. He has been trained to play classical piano, a skill ignored in the United States where his talent carries no value because of his race. Music informs his life completely yet segregation in Baltimore offers him nothing. Impoverished and despondent, he’s offered a job to play with a band in China. Thomas accepts, escaping the squalor and inequality that is the standard of Black life in 1930’s America. China offers him freedom and a luxurious life with a home, servants, and clothes inaccessible to him in America. He doesn’t let on to his new boss that he has no idea how to play jazz, but the other band members quickly discover his ineptitude.

These two young people of extraordinary talent suffer with their own histories of subjugation, one owned by a man as is custom in her country, the other finding more freedom in his adopted country than he will ever enjoy in the land where he was born. Enraged by the duplicity of her bondage, Song hides the fact that she is spying on her kingpin boss for the emerging Communist rebels living in northern caves. Thomas struggles to understand the intuitive improvisation required of jazz, finally achieving a level of skill admired by the rest of his band and loved by the club attendees.

Seeing each other across the floor of the dance hall, it is no surprise that they are drawn together. Still, their relationship remains unconsummated while their romance grows, until one night when it is obvious that the Japanese are at the threshold of Shanghai, the invasion only moments away. At such fever pitch, Song and Thomas finally find solace in each other’s arms. As any couple would ponder, they are in doubt if their love affair will survive the destruction of the country. Will it ever be safe for either of them? The tension adds gravitas to their dilemma about where they owe their most allegiance – to their cultures or to themselves.

A secondary plotline addresses one of Thomas’ friends, a Jewish violinist with whom he can share his affection for classical music. In  addition, the book presents the efforts of a Chinese diplomat to offer sanctuary to 100,000 Jews trying to flee Nazi Germany to a district in northern China. That this event really happened points up the cosmopolitan and influential persona of the city. On the verge of war from one front and revolution from another, the plan never comes to fruition; it becomes one more failure to save Jewish lives, nevertheless initiated with sincerity.

History books, often brilliantly written and researched, give the timelines, maps, treaties, names of actual players, and outcomes of an era. But historical fiction provides the heartbeat. Mones weaves complex history with dexterity, the result of masterful writing and a vision of individuals snagged in conflicts, both personal and political. Brought to an intimate scale, readers feel the upheaval of China through the eyes of her characters. Throughout the book reigns a sense of Shanghai taking a last, desperate breath before dying as a colonial larva and emerging as a communist moth. We all know of the millions of people whose lives were cast aside like empty pupa along the path to a new Chinese nationhood. Night in Shanghai left me longing for justice – and love.

I look forward to learning about your favorite N fiction books.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for N:

National Velvet by Enid Bagnold

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt