[484]: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

ConstellationGOODREADS SUMMARY | Random House Canada | May 6th, 2013 | Paperback, 384 pp. | Adult Fiction | Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars


This is one of those books that’s difficult to describe, with emotions that’s even harder to articulate. I’m always amazed when a writer is able to transform something despicable into a beautiful, life-affirming masterpiece. It’s hard to grasp that this is Anthony Marra’s debut work. The history, the hardships, the small miracles and the descriptive way he transports his reader to that time speaks of a veteran writer with several awards under his belt and not a – for lack of a better word – newbie.

It’s so easy to see how much time he spent immersing himself with the history for which this book is about. I, as a reader, can appreciate how he whet my curiosity for a war I was foolishly oblivious about. After reading this book, I spent some considerable time scouring the internet for anything I can find about the war; one that cost over 160,000 lives and immeasurable destruction for ten years. 

“On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Haava woke from dreams of sea anemones.”

The novel begins in a way that foretells the fate of Chechen nationals unlucky enough to have lived through the first and the second war. Haava, an 8-year-old clever, inquisitive child had just been orphaned. On the night of his abduction, Havaa’s father had the foresight to lead her into the woods to spare her life; while their neighbour, Akhmed, watched and waited fearfully until he’s able to see to Haava’s safety. In the morning, he’ll take her to the lone salvation he can offer the child by asking Sonja, the only surgeon left in their war-torn region.

Akhmed’s wife is in a permanent vegetative state. He’s seen through her care with very minimal resources he could afford and the paltry medical knowledge he remembers from school. He is, for all intents and purposes, a doctor himself. Although an incompetent one, for most of the time. What he lacks, he makes up with love and dazzling optimism in a world where kindness and beauty is buried deep in the rubble of a God-forsaken country.

I wish I could paint you the stories of these characters as beautiful as Anthony has done. I wish I can convince you to read it even though you’re probably grossing about how unnecessarily long this review had become.

 This is the type of novel where one person holds the key in unlocking the story’s brilliance. You can say it’s Havaa; for she touched the lives of each character; or Natasia, Sonja’s troubled sister who came and left like the smoke from a freshly-fired artillery. But that’s the best thing about this book. Anthony made every single one of his characters important enough to hold the story together.

Natasia and Sonja’s relationship bears the scar of an early childhood sibling rivalry. Over the years, they’ve played their roles with uneasy acceptance. Sonja, the one with the brilliant mind, moved to London to start her medical studies at the beginning of the first war. While Natasia stayed behind and tried to escape the best way she could. Sonja will lose contact with her sister and will eventually be the reason why she leaves the comfort and peace of London.

Natasia did not have an easy life. We see her suffer in the hands of an abusive lover; we see her fend for herself while bombs rained down on her city; we see her fall in the hands of a sex-trafficker by her own choice. Eventually, she’ll succumb to drug addiction. By the time Sonja and Natasia catches up to each other, both have gone through unimaginable horrors.

This is a war story. Nothing will be easy to digest. There are tales of torture, amputation, and heartbreak. But there are also love, compassion, and hope to brighten an otherwise stark novel. Once again, I find myself scouring the web; searching for the whys, the whens, and the hows. This is the kind of novel where a reader will be tempted to understand the futility of it all, and would cry at the impossibility of that task.

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[477]: The Blonde by Anna Godbersen

the blonde

GOODREADS SUMMARY | Weinstein Books | Hardcover, pp. 390
Publication Date: May 13th, 32014 | Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars


I’ve always held a fascination with Marilyn Monroe’s bright and short-lived life. When I saw this book at the bookstore, I just know that I had to get it. I must admit that I was equal parts skeptical and thrilled. Skeptical on how convincing of a spy she’d be, and thrilled with the prospect of whatever conspiracy theories I would be taking away from this novel.

Little Girl Lost.

When she was a girl on the cusp of adulthood, her father, a travelling salesman,  left one morning and didn’t come back. She’d been looking for him ever since. With every man that comes into her life, she creates a perception of what her father might be like.

A Woman Made-up.

When she was a struggling actress trying to make it in Hollywood, a Soviet agent decided she’d make the perfect spy: with her blond tresses, a voice of childlike innocence, and the hourglass figure, no one would know the better. They created this sexual persona that very few men could dare resist. Norma Jean shed her skin, and Marilyn Monroe was born.

A Man on the Scope.

John F. Kennedy was a senator whose star was on the rise. When the KGB set their sights on him, Marilyn was tasked to infiltrate the life of a notoriously known womanizer with a brilliant political future.  Jack, because of despite his staunch Catholic upbringing, was unable to resist the sensational actress. An affair ensued.

This is not Marilyn Monroe.

We only know of Marilyn’s legendary life through what we’ve been told, heard, seen, and read in the years following her death. We know of the failed marriages, the alleged affairs, and her apparent suicide. Among the number of males linked with her name is one John Fitzgerald Kennedy. A man whose family name is synanymous  to royalty in America. This is a fictional account of a different Marilyn Monroe, her illicit love affair with the president, and her role – directly and indirectly – in his assassination.

It is everything you’ve come to expect from a novel whose main character exudes her legendary sexual allure: erotic, exciting, and a visceral depiction of a life lived in the grasp of a powerful organization.

Godbersen perfectly captured the voice of a vulnerable woman in desperate search of a familial love. She was an easy prey to a man who knew her weakness, and knew how to manipulate it to work in his advantage. However, he grievously miscalculated the passion and loyalty of a person in love.

We see an intelligent, cunning, and a strong woman  who hid behind the quivering lips, the cloud of silken white hair, and the soft voice meant to enrapture the male audience. Marilyn Monroe behind the public eye, was a different creature altogether.  It was difficult to see the demarkation line between fact and the myth; the fiction and the legend; the truth and the imagined.

We also see a different JFK. He is portrayed as a man weak with desire, but whose drive is powered by his political aspirations.  I’ve always been curious about the iconic, Happy Birthday songso I was ecstatic to read the bathroom romp that followed thereafter.

This book perfectly exemplifies Marilyn’s relevance after all these years. Our never-ending curiosity about her fabled life will always spark someone’s creativity to satiate an itch more than seven years in the making. Anna Godbersen allowed her readers to see Marilyn in a different light, while remaining true to the icon that we’ve all come to know.

 

 

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[473]: Wake by Anna Hope

DSC_0803 GOODREADS SUMMARY | Random House Canada | January 1st, 2014 | Hardback, 304 pages | Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars


The most effective way to learn History is to experience it through works of fiction. While that statement may be a paradox, it is the most accurate way to describe how I feel about learning History.  Sometimes, cold hard facts do not inspire ravenous curiosity. Reading historical accounts through someone’s personal perspective changes the experience quite drastically.

Anna Hope’s Wake is a good example of that. I’ve learned a thing or two about the war. But the one thing that stood in my mind was the Coalition Forces’ ability to kill their own soldiers should they be found guilty of desertion.

The journey of the unknown soldier.

Set five days before the arrival of the unknown soldier, Wake tells the story of three women with their own struggles during the aftermath of World War I.  The stories of their lives are knotted in the same thread. And as the soldier nears his final resting place, it becomes clear how closely their lives were twined together.

Ada

Ada’s marriage  died along with their son who didn’t come back from the war. Haunted by his memories, she goes through life seeing his apparitions. She can’t shake off the feeling that her son never really died. Because without a body to speak of, her hopes are still alive.

Hettie

Hettie’s life hasn’t been the same since the war. She lost her father to Spanish flu, and her brother came back from the war catatonic from severe shell shock. A dancer by profession, she makes sacrifices to help her mother run their household. One night, she meets an enigmatic rich man who was haunted by his own demons from the war.

Evelyn

Evelyn is a rich heiress who never had to work her entire life. Aggrieved by the untimely death of her lover, she spends her life working at a veterans’ pensions office as an act of self-flagellation. There, she hears every single stories of trauma and injuries suffered by the soldiers who served the country.

One person too many.

As is the prevalent problem with stories told from different points of views, I had a difficulty focusing on the focal point of the story. I found myself unable to keep a consistent interest with all four, the fourth one being a collective group of people who were somehow connected to the unknown soldier. More often, I found myself getting the characters mixed up – which ultimately led to some re-reading sessions that bogged me down whilst in the throes of this novel.

That’s not to say their stories aren’t all that interesting. They are, in their own merits, captivating regardless of how muddled they may be at times. The novel suffered from  too many sub stories that I had a tough time staying focused.

Anna Hope’s Wake is a fascinating take on the stories of people coping after the war. In their own way, the burial of the unknown soldier was their way of letting go and accepting inner peace. Most stories, though unresolved, at least offered underlying hope that each characters’ ghosts were laid to rest along with the soldier.

 

 

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[467]: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

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GOODREADS SUMMARY | Vintage | May 9th, 2013 |
| Paperback, 384 pages | Adult Fiction
| Historical | Romance |Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars


Let’s see… MI5. Spy fiction. Historical. Written by a critically acclaimed author. I knew going in that I’m a little bit over my head with this novel. But I’ve always been a believer of trying new things, and while McEwan is a pretty popular author in the literary circle, this is my introduction to his world.

His writing is something that one needs to get used to in order to fully appreciate what you’ve signed up for. Unfortunately for me, the formality of his narrative couldn’t keep me drawn into the story.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it…

It’s the 70s, the Cold War is in full swing, and close to home, Britain is under civil unrest. Serena Frome didn’t have a clue what she wants to do in her life. English Literature is out, since her mother – one of feminist values – dissuaded her against taking the lazy way out. After a stint in Cambridge majoring in maths, a number of forces and influences would land her a position in Britain’s covert intelligence agency.  Unexpectedly, she’ll find out that a former lover was recruiting her all along.

Her first mission was Sweet Tooth; an operation which focuses on finding the ten best writers England has to offer, but would have to have proven skepticisms about the developing Eastern utopias in Europe. Her path would cross with one Tom Haley; a writer she’s commissioned to pursue. Serena, being a compulsive reader, soon starts to fall in love with his work, then with the man.

Of course she kept him in the dark about a lot of things. Least of all, why the struggling writer was all of a sudden flushed with money. She kept her real employment a secret, but in the end, she’ll discover that Tom Haley is harbouring secrets of his own.

This message will self-destruct in 3…2..

Spy fiction! I’ve never read something like this before…not that Sweet Tooth was one. Unfortunately, this is not in the scale of Ian Fleming’s type of work. Or the more modern, Ludlum. In fact, the mission was kind of lame. MI5 created a top secret operation in which they will support the livelihoods of ten writers in the hopes that they’ll write something significant in the future. A bit like propaganda against the rising powers of the Red countries. But what a complete waste of resources! Considering what kind of literature their chosen writers were writing, and how painstakingly long it would take for the whole of England to take notice. Talk about a slow return on investment.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if the novel was a psychological thriller, because then, the mission would make more sense. But since the focal point was on Serena’s romantic entanglements, this book would’ve been better off marketed as romance. The entire thing felt too hopelessley contrived to make it believable. That twist in the end did nothing to stave off the boredom I felt while reading this book. Some may find Tom’s secrets to be quite interesting, but for me, it neither enhanced it nor did the story suffer with its inclusion.

I should’ve chosen Atonement for my induction to his work. If Ian McEwan is capable of writing fluff, I’m thinking this is his version of one.

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[455]: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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GOODREADS SUMMARY | McClelland & Stewart | Hardcover, 576 pages
Publication Date: September 16th, 2014 | Adult Fiction | Historical | Mystery
Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars


The literary world is a vast universe I’ve only began to explore. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled upon Sarah Waters’ latest via a recommendation from one of the ladies at my bookstore. I wasn’t familiar with the author and her work, and much to my delight, I found out that Sarah Waters has the corner on a specific arch: lesbian protagonists in an historical setting. I’m ashamed to admit that this is my very first read featuring a lesbian relationship, considering that I’ve read my fair share of gay lit featuring two males.

More and more, I’m learning that if I read up on an author’s background, it helps understand why they chose a specific niche. Sarah Waters’ background on lesbians and gay in historical fictions inspired  the characters in her books. However, I’ve yet to read other books for which she’s known for (Fingersmith or Tipping the Velvet), but I was able to have to taste of it in this novel.

This one follows the story of Frances; a woman who had to be at the helm of what’s left of the family fortune.  Her brothers were both killed in the war; closely followed by the death of her father, leaving her to care for her mother and a house in a state of disrepair. As they learned that her father lost just about everything to failed ventures, Frances and her mother decided to take on borders (or paying guests) to alleviate the financial stress. This was how they met Lillian and Leonard Barber, the childless married couple who would be the subject of Frances’ great curiousity, and would spearhead a tumult of chaos in what used to be a peaceful life.

Frances didn’t expect to experience such great attraction to Lillian, but the lonely homemaker found what her husband lacked in Frances. I suppose if I’d to dive deeper into her psyche, I’d say that Frances offered refinement, and gentle love as oppose to Leonard’s exuberance. What started out as friendship and easy companionship evolved into a clandestine affair between the two women. To read such a relationship in that era and how women dealt with the condemnation of the time was interesting to me. What’s even more surprising (or maybe not so), is that in the present time, if you find yourself in a conservative circle, you’ll probably be met with the same narrow-minded judgement. In some cases, status quo is about the same.

Another point of interest for me was the implications of the women’s role during and after the war. When men left to fight, women assumed the jobs that they vacated. Waters deftly captures the gender role reversals after the war: while the men could barely find employment, the women have become established in positions that were previously unavailable to them. Some men felt castrated, and didn’t shy away from expressing their opinions.

Because this book was my baptism of fire to Waters’ works, I would consider it as an adjustment period of sorts. A taste test, to get a feel of what to expect from her. I’ve never been one to go for award-winning body of works, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try them. Sarah Waters writes with sophistication, but hardly reticent to tackle anything that could be considered crass or uncivilized, if need be.

I enjoyed this one, but I think hers are the kind of novels where your mood dictates exactly when you should pick them up. I’m looking forward to Fingersmith, though; and wouldn’t mind picking up her other novels as well.

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[454]: The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

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The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes | Penguin Canada | Hardcover, 384 pages
Publication date: August 13th, 2014 | Adult Fiction | Historical | Romance
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars


“Will it buy my husband his freedom? Will…will I buy my husband his freedom?”

The story began in World War 1, most specifically during the invasion of France by Germany. In a small town ruled by German forces, Sophie and her sister ran a cafe/bar called, Le Coq Rouge. Situation was dire as both their husbands were fighting the war; and the only man in the house was their teenage brother full of spite and bad temper. One night, when the Germans came knocking at their door with an accusation of theft, Herr Kommandant came face to face with strong willed, Sophie Lefèvre.  She stood her ground, talked back to an officer, risked punishment by telling them exactly what they can do with their accusations. Herr Kommandant was stunned, and a little taken with the beauty who showed him no fear. That wasn’t the only thing that rendered him speechless, however. It was a painting of a girl full of life, desire and passion. Not at all the same girl who stood before him. It was Sophie, of course, painted by Edward Lefèvre, her husband before they got married.

Herr Kommandant was inexplicably drawn to the painting as much as he was drawn to Sophie. Every night since then, he commissioned Le Coq Rouge to provide dinner for him and for his troop. Sophie risked being hated by her neighbours, and their allegations of being a German sympathizer. But Sophie was not a selfish person, nor did she care of what they thought of her. As long as her family was eating, and she was able to provide leftover food to those in need, she continued to cook for Herr Kommandant. Besides, she’d become accustomed to his company; and their discussions about Art sated the ache of missing her husband.

But when the cruelty of the Nazi regime became even more obvious, and her husband was taken to a camp, Sophie had nowhere to turn to but Herr Kommandant.

Sophie’s story began when she was taken by the Germans on accusations of insurgence. When she thought that the Herr Kommandant came through with his promise for her to be reunited with her husband. What happens to the painting after that, becomes the crux of Liv Halston’s story, almost a century later.

I’m sorry to have written such a long summary for Sophie’s story. I feel that hers is the major draw for this book. I must admit that I felt guilty for being giddy with the forbidden romance between Kommandant Henchken and Sophie, mainly because romanticizing such a dark period in the world history is wrong. The lives lost at the time, the torture that the victims endured, and the preamble to what was to be an even more unimaginable horrors yet to come are just hard to think of but nightmarish.

Jojo Moyes captured the sombre and frightful air of a town besieged by enemies. It was a bleak world; one where supplies were controlled by the German forces, and people were hungry and afraid. Cut off from the world, post was hard to come by. Especially if they were expecting to hear from loved ones battling in the front. Here, we saw people doing what they can to salvage what was left of their riches (by burying them in their garden), and hiding missives received from loved ones. The author took great pains in making sure she captured the aura of the times, and have given justice to the sufferings of the French people.

The second part of this story is set in the modern times. It was the story of a struggling widow, Liv Halston. Her husband was a brilliant architect who died in his sleep, leaving her with an enormous house a single woman can’t afford. She’s already struggling to make ends meet, so when her purse was stolen on a night when she wanted to forget her troubles by getting smashed, she just about gave up. Enter Paul McCafferty, an expat who finds lost art for a living. Fate is such a cruel bitch. Instant connection between the two stymied by The Girl You Left Behind, a painting that was believed to have been stolen by the Germans during the war.

It was interesting to see the process of how some of the looted art during the war are being recovered. The amount of research required and the how such a delicate thing is being handled. A lot of people wouldn’t be so quick to contest a stolen art, so it was also interesting to see what kind of hostility a person would face in such a case where  they refuse to hand it over.

I could go on for miles about this book. All I can say is, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. This coming at the heels of reading Night Film by Marisha Pessl, another book that I’d gladly shout praises until practically everyone I know have added it to their shelves. All you need to know is that Jojo Moyes will not fail you. The woman can turn something uncouth into something understandable, and can incite empathy to someone whose political belief was rooted in hate.

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The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott

Surviving the Titanic disaster. 
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The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott
Double Day, Hardcover 304 pages
If you’ve ever wondered what happened to the survivors after Carpathia docked in New York, The Dressmaker is the story of a select few and the investigation that followed the Titanic disaster. 
Admittedly, it took me a while to finish this book. Between life getting in the way and the droll way with which the the novel was told, let’s just say this book fermented in my currently-reading shelf for close to a month. Oh the horror. Historicals are not my cup of tea but sometimes, I can be co-erced to read them. My reason for picking this up sooner rather than much later was due to the fact that it’s just really high time.

This is an investigative account of what happened in the moments when people fought each other off to save their own lives. Divided into those who acted selflessly and selfishly, we found out exactly what those people were made of. When faced with a grave choice between a literal life or death, instincts can make cowards and heroes of us all. And it couldn’t have been more closer to the truth than in this book.

Part historical account and part fictional, The Dressmaker centres around an English maid whose ambitions would lead her to the fateful voyage that was the Titanic. There, she gets her one-shot at fulfilling her dreams of becoming a dressmaker by offering her services to one Lucille Duff Gordon, a prominent English designer slash aristocrat. In the majestic ship, she also meets two men with whom she would be torn with toward the ending of the book. Yes, it was a love triangle, and no I didn’t feel the need to hurt someone. I’d say the book was romantic, but I’d be lying. In fact, I couldn’t feel a single twinge of excitement with the romances in this book. If the synopsis of the book led you to believe the novel would be reaping with romance, then you’ll be sorely disappointed.

The investigation process was interestingly enough, simple enough for a simpleton to follow. There was nothing complicated about the stories that had happened apart from the politics that originated from the disaster itself. There was a lot of attempted cover-ups, bribery and failures left and right. The core of this book, really, is the discovery of our limits when forced to decide between heroism and cowardice. How far would you go to save your own husband? Would you really dressed him up like a woman just so he could get a seat on one of the few boats available? Would you bribe the sailors in charge of the oars not to come back for other survivors even though you’ve got plenty of room? Would you hand over your two children to a virtual stranger to save them knowing that you’d never see them again? At the end of it all, people did whatever it was to save their own hides and I don’t think you can fault them for that.

The Dressmaker is a mildly entertaining book that would give you an insight to the trials following the Titanic disaster. It’s not so much about the negligence of White Star Lines that were put to the stands but the ostracism of one particular English aristocrat couple. If you are looking to see exactly what happened to the company who built the ship, I suggest you read actual history books.

My Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

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