Author: Reynolds Price
Title: Kate Vaiden
Publication Info: Scribner (1986)
Summary/Review: This story set in rural North Carolina and later in Norfolk, Virginia is told from the perspective as a memoir titular character. Kate’s parents die in a murder-suicide leaving Kate to be raised by relatives and to get involve in self-destructive sexual relationships at a young age. The tone of the book is one of distance and indifference, perhaps appropriate to a narrator who has shut her self off from the world, but at the same time it is difficult to read a story that the narrator seems uninterested in telling. What could be a good story of an interior struggle comes off as dull and unconvincing.
Recommended Books: The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields and A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
Author: Jim Fergus
Title: One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd
Publication Info: New York : St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.
Summary/Review: This novel is built on the premise that in 1875 the Cheyenne tribe made an agreement with the Grant administration to bring 1000 white women to their lands as sort of mail-order brides in order to promote amity and civilization of the natives. The government finds some volunteers and fills out the allotment of 1000 women with inmates from prisons and insane asylums. The book is written as diary entries and letters from one of the latter, a woman named May Dodd placed in an asylum by her well-off family because she lived out of wedlock and bore children to a man of a lower class.
The positive aspects of this book is that it while May and her compatriots find love and much to admire in their new home, they Cheyenne are not idealized (a la Dances With Wolves). May while appreciating her new husband and free lifestyle never stops referring to the Indians as savages. The book comes to a sad but inevitable end as the Americans lust for land leads to the conquest of the Cheyenne, white women included.
This book was better than I expected as I thought it would be a more flippant farce. I did find that Fergus as a male author failed to write convincingly in the female voice. For example, May suffers some traumatic experiences that are rather casually put behind her. Still, it’s a unique framing for a historical novel and an enjoyable read.
Recommended books: The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth, Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.
Author: Audrey Niffeneger
Title: Her Fearful Symmetry
Publication Info: New York : Scribner, 2009.
Previously read by same author: The Time Traveler’s Wife
As she used and refined elements of time travel mythology to create The Time Traveler’s Wife, Niffeneger uses the ghost story as a means of telling a human story of relationships, identity, and loss. The characters of this story are trapped in some way – literally in some cases – but mostly trapped in relationships or trapped in their own past. Elspeth, the ghost of the story, is trapped in her former apartment near Highgate Cemetery in London. The gist of the novel is that Elspeth wills the apartment to her twin nieces whom she’s not seen since their infancy on the condition that the twins reside in the apartment for one year before selling and that they not allow her sister Edie (also a twin) to enter the apartment. The tightly connected sisters Julia and Valentina start to see their relationship erode under Elspeth’s ghostly watch as well as befriending their neighbors Robert (Elspeth’s grieving life partner) and Martin (a man so overcome by OCD that he cannot leave his house).
Halfway through this book I thought this was a brilliant novel balancing the intertwining tales of these five characters with the mystery of Elspeth’s afterlife. And then a twist in the story* breaks the narrative tension and makes the novel more pedestrian, in my opinion. Another twist** pushes the boundaries of the absurd and really broke the suspension of disbelief for me. A revelation late in the novel*** and the conclusion† are utterly predictable and disappointing (see footnotes for spoilers). Ultimately, Her Fearful Symmetry is entertaining enough but fails to deliver on its strong start. I think Niffeneger could’ve done much better with a promising premise.
As a side note, the parts about Highgate Cemetery are really fascinating. I find it interesting both because I live near an historic cemetery and because of the insights into the lives and motivations of preservationists and tour guides.
Recommended books: Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.
* Elspeth learns to communicate with Valentina, Julia, and Robert through Ouija boards and controlling their hands to write notes.
** Elspeth learns to tear out the souls of living beings and then place them back in their presumably dead bodies.
*** Elspeth is the twins’ real mother.
† Elspeth removes Valentina’s soul but puts herself into Valentina’s body.
Author: Atul Gawande
Title: Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance
Publication Info: BBC Audiobooks America
This book is a collection of essays about the need for excellence in medicine because the cost of even a small error may be fatal. In the conclusion, Gawande makes suggestion on how the standards for being better can be applied to any field of endeavor.
Topics covered in the essays in this book include:
- The spread of infection in hospitals that should be preventable but habits of medical staff are difficult to change.
- The people skills required to stop the spread of disease in India.
- A review of the current state of malpractice law that offers a good balance between the surgeon’s fears and the rights of the patient.
- Amazing stories of doctors in India who regularly perform procedures outside their specialty and with limited resources but are as effective in healing patients as doctors in the US.
- The conundrum of whether doctors should participate in executions to help make them more humane or should completely eschew any practice that leads to a death.
This book was selected by my book club and I was pleasantly surprised that it was better (ha-ha!) than I expected. Gawande writes in a direct – sometimes arrogant – manner but at the end one can’t help but agree that he is on to something. As an added bonus, he practices in Boston, so I know where to go if I’m looking for a good surgeon.
Author: Colum McCann
Title: Let the Great World Spin
I can’t say enough good things about this novel. Each chapter tells the story of one person in New York on and around the day that Phillipe Petit crosses the gap between the Twin Towers on a wire. McCann really brings the voices and stories and the personal drama of their everyday lives to life. At the end of each chapter I was sad to see that characters story gone and have to read about someone else, but McCann won me over again and again. McCann also does a good job of showing how these very different people are connected to one another in ways both profound and tentative. This will definitely go on my best books of the year list.
Recommended books: New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg by Marshall Berman and Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Title: Skeletons at the Feast
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2008
The William & Mary Alumni Boston Chapter selected this novel set in German-occupied Poland at the end of the Second World War. It tells the story of three different journeys that intertwine and complement one another. First there is the Emmerich family, prosperous German farmers in East Prussia with the elderly father and eldest sons off fighting, the women and children flee west to safety from the Russian army taking with them a Scottish POW. Then there is Uri, a Jew who escaped from the prison trains and has spent two years taking on the uniforms and identities of various German officers both for survival and sabotage. Finally there is Cecille, a French Jewish woman forced with her fellow prisoners on a death march (although this is the least well-realized of the three storylines).
Bohjalian does not shrink from the details of all that was horrible about the war and the Holocaust. Yet, in the end this is a book about hope. After tearing us down, Bohjalian builds us back up with the romance of 18-year old Anna Emmerich and the Scottish airman Callum, the persistence of Cecille, the bravery of Uri and many small, kind acts. The one thing I wish the author had not done was to distance the Emmerich’s so much from Nazism. It seems a cop-out that many authors/filmmakers fall on is the “good German” instead of trying to find humanity or promise of redemption in those who adhered to this evil ideology.
All in all a gripping and well-written novel.
Recommended books: Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies