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A Year in Books – From Rich Asians To Snow Maidens

Goodreads, bless their little algorithmic socks, let me know this week that I’ve read 14 books this year. Yep, all of 14. Gasp. What an achievement. Not. I’ve in fact posted 14 reviews, which led their stats monkeys to interpret my activities as having “read” 14 books, since each book you select must be marked as mark as “read”, “currently reading” or “want to read” – and “read” allows you to review it. I’ve actually read more than 70 books this year and I can wade through a good number in a quiet holiday month like December. This week was particularly satisfying, having had nothing to do but nurse a cold, lie in bed, and read: I finished The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton (HarperCollins Publishers, 2014); The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson (HarperCollins Publishers, 2011); and Distrust that Particular Flavor, by William Gibson (Penguin Books, 2012).

For the most part, it takes a devilishly complex novel – both in terms of language and subject – to slow down my reading speed. When I do come across those, I like the indulgence of re-reading parts, looking for clues, taking notes and stretching out the experience to a week or more.  That was the case with Amnesia, by Peter Carey (Penguin Group Australia, 2014), read while in Perth last month, The Truth, by Michael Palin (Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2012), read while in New Zealand, and Iain Banks’ The Quarry (Little, Brown U.K., 2013, first U.S. trade ed. Apr. 2014), brought along on the trip.

These I will review in depth.  Others on the long list of 2014 reads, that I have not yet reviewed on this site, for one reason or another, are:

1 Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan
2 The Table of Less Valued Knights, by Marie Phillips
3 Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan
4 The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey
5 The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman
6 The Last Nude, by Ellis Avery

Peter Carey (two-times Man Booker Prize winner), and Sci-Fi giants Iain Banks and William Gibson are respected authors and highly rated, and with these books they re-affirm their standing. Alice Hoffman, mistress of Magic Realism, disappointed me a bit with this foray into romantic historical fiction. Not remotely as famous, though already on their third books each, are Kevin WilsonEllis Avery and Marie Phillips, whose latest novels I enjoyed, but not a lot, for different reasons. On the other hand, Michael Palin (yes, the actor and presenter) and Nancy Horan both pleasantly surprised me with their second novels. So did newcomers Jessie Burton and Eowyn Ivey, whose debuts impressed me, whereas Kevin Kwan’s first book is a bit of a hot mess.

Here’s my take on some of these December Holiday reads. Spoiler alert: it includes negative reviews.

Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan

Crazy-Rich-Asians(Anchor Canada edition 2014)

I picked this one because of my fascination with the…errmmm…crazy rich Asians making new homes in Canada, chasing up property values and adding a Feng Shui flavour to the little grey homes in our street. It was moderately entertaining, and completely forgettable. It reads like a product or property catalogue, and Kwan defines sophistication and elegance by brand and dollar value. In that sense, his descriptions of the afore-mentioned crazy, rich Asians simply emphasize the image of the characters as a group, as shallow, materialistic, and prestige-hungry. Even with Mandarin and Malay phrases thrown in to add authenticity, the plot is as thin as diet soup and the explanation for the romantic entanglement is, frankly, condescending: the Chinese-born American mother turns out to be the heroine with the elevated set of morals. Trust Americans to save the day. This was Kevin Kwan’s debut novel, and he fell squarely into most of the traps of spouting clichés, stereotypes and truisms.

the table of less valued knights

The Table of Less Valued Knights, by Marie Phillips

(Random House Canada, 2014)

This is a quite clever, modern take on the knight’s quest of an Arthurian legend, with more than a nod in the direction of Monty Python And The Holy Grail. The setting might be Medieval, but Phillips’ writing style is modern, and so are the ideas of the characters. There are evil knights, good knights, squires, damsels in distress, battles and castles and horses aplenty. But at the end of a fairly diverting few hours, I ended up wondering what the point was, other than entertainment. After having reread the book a second and a third time, I finally realized where Phillips had placed the emphasis: it is a rather sneaky commentary on gender, gender roles and gender-swapping. I had not particularly noticed that at first, which says something about how subtly she worked it in. (More about the book, here.) Go to the Top

Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan

Under the Wide and Starry Sky, by Nancy Horan

(Ballantine Books, 2013)

Horan’s first historical novel about Frank Lloyd Wright, Loving Frank, failed to entice me, I suspect because she kept so very closely to the very well publicized lives and affairs of the famous architect. I felt I got no deeper into the psyche of the lead characters than that which I had really read and known.  Loving Frank being a novel, not a biography, I felt Horan could have digressed a bit more, taken a little more poetic licence, done a bit more interpretation.  In Under the Wide and Starry Sky, again, Horan writes about a famous person, writer Robert Louis Stevenson, 19th century author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – and this time she got the balance between historical fact and fiction right. Again, she tells the story from the point of view of the famous person’s lover – in this instance Fanny Van De Grift Osbourne.

Written by her daughter, The life of Mrs Robert Louis Stevenson, published 1920 by Chatto & Windus, London
Written by her daughter, The Life Of Mrs Robert Louis Stevenson, published 1920 by Chatto & Windus, London

I think the test of success of a historical novel is whether it stimulates and intrigues you enough that you go and find out more about the subject yourself. In this Horan succeeded, this time. (Read Fanny’s description of their journey The Cruise Of The Janet Nichol Among The South Sea Islands (1914) – it’s quite interesting).

Fanny is a fascinating character, and Horan’s description of the tumultuous and passionate relationship between her and Stevenson is very moving. I had no idea that Stevenson wrote such wonderful love poems addressed to her. I had primarily thought of him as a writer of children’s books not a romantic poet. Horan intriguingly depicts Fanny’s frustration at being Stevenson’s editor, muse and promotor, while suppressing her own need to write. Fanny becomes ill, and, as she strays into madness, one expects her to die, but it is Stevenson whose death is a shocker. This one is worth a re-read – a keeper in other words. Definitely recommended.

(Stevenson in Love, a two-part radio play by Mike Harris based on the classic travelogues, journals and personal letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, voiced by David Tennant, was broadcast by the BBC in 2011. The stories attempt to capture Stevenson’s feelings for Fanny Osbourne, and how they affected him on his travels.) Go to the Top

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

(Back Bay Books, Little Brown and Company, 2012)

Eowyn Ivey was raised in Alaska, was educated there, and lives there. Ivey was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2013 for this, her first novel.  Particularly because this is a debut novel, I read it very critically, but it is excellent.  It takes some skill to spin a compelling tale of marriage and survival in Alaska in the 1920s out of a Russian folk tale of The Snow Maiden, Snegurochka, in which the sweet Snow Maiden is born out of snow and comes to bring joy to a childless couple, until she eventually melts and disappears. This is different from The Snow Child folk tale, in which a merchant returns home after an absence of two years to find his wife with a newborn son, whom she says came from a snow flake. The merchant raises the boy until he sells him into slavery, telling his wife that the boy melted. And readers who recognize these allusions in the title and cover illustration will also immediately have a sense of impending doom in the story. Whether like the maiden or the child, it cannot end well.

However, the novel is filled with terribly beautiful descriptions of the Alaskan landscape, and the other lead character – the snow. The characters are beguiling, the end  – while expected – is nonetheless enough to make you swallow a sob, and though you know it is a bit of fantasy, it is still a quite magically enchanting read. Go to the Top

The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman

(Scribner, 2014)

I am an Alice Hoffman fan, enjoying her depictions of normal characters in strange, magical, yet harshly earthy situations. Hoffman indeed presents the best of both Magic + Realism. My favourite of hers is The Red Garden (2011), of which I’ve bought extra copies to send to friends. This time she dispenses with magic and the novel is a straightforward historical novel set in a Coney Island boardwalk freak show early in the 1900s. It is partly a romance, part murder mystery, part history of New York from its rural beginnings, part history of the labour movement after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, part a history of photography, and part history of freak shows, circuses and human curiosities (and their demise). Altogether, there are too many threads and themes, while the main character, a girl named Coralie, failed to convince me. She is held captive by her adoptive father, “the professor”, who exhibits her in his “scientific” cabinet of curiosities.

Although the first “freak show” at Coney Island opened in 1880, the golden age of the village’s side shows began in 1904 when Samuel W. Gumpertz opened Lilliputia, an entire miniature city scaled for its dwarf and midget inhabitants. After Dreamland burned in 1911, he opened Dreamland Circus Sideshow. Human oddities who worked in circuses and other traveling shows enjoyed the relative stability and permanence of Coney Island.

As usual, Hoffman’s writing style charms the reader, since it is extraordinarily accomplished and based on thorough research. Particularly lovely are her descriptions of the Hudson River where Coralie practices swimming like a mermaid. But, Coralie as the lead character seemed too timorous and uncertain to be a freak show performer.

One point of view is that it took more courage for people with unusual physical attributes to fit into normal society at that time, than for them to join freak shows and circuses. There they did not feel victimized, rather, they felt they had the companionship of people who viewed their oddities as talents, rather than disfigurements. That is one point of view – which I more or less agree with – yet, the plot revolves around Coralie’s fear of her father, her slavish obedience and her extended search for identify and escape.

Ultimately, Coralie saves the man she loves by jumping into the very tank in which she was exhibited by the professor. Obviously, she turns out to be tougher than she appeared. On the one hand the small webs between her fingers are her burden – on the other they are her salvation.

The sweeping historical timeline and the multiple grand themes make this book a screenplay waiting to be snatched up. All the same, I would prefer a return to Hoffman’s previous form: lean, spare, elegant, beautiful – and magical. The Museum of Extraordinary Things was nominated on Goodreads Choice Awards 2014 (Historical Fiction.) Go to the Top

The Last Nude, by Ellis Avery

(Riverbed Books, 2011). I like “Künstlerromane” which are fictional depictions of the coming-of-age of artists or geniuses – real or imagined, and their personal and social environments. Some of the best modern Künstlerromane of the last decade that I’ve read are:

  • Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier, about Johannes Vermeer, as subtle and delicate as the painting itself;
  • In the Kingdom of Mists, by Jane Jakeman, about Claude Monet, crossing murder with art;
  • The dense and brilliant The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, about Carel Fabritius;
  • The Pornographer of Vienna by Lewis Crofts, about Egon Schiele – very disturbing stuff, and
  • Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia, about  post-Renaissance painter Artemisia Gentileschi – well researched and very well retold.

So Avery had some stiff competition  with this one. I had laboured through her novel set in Japan, The Teahouse Fire, reviewed here, which had won her the Lesbian Debut Fiction prize at the Lambda Literary Awards, and the Barbara Gittings Literature Award for best gay or lesbian novel in the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Awards. Disappointingly, this novel, set in Paris in the 1920s, is less about the art of Tamara de Lempicka, than about the affair between her and her model named Rafaela, the nude of the title. It is distractingly erotic, heavy with lewd, lingering glances, fighting-and-making-up, jealousy, overwrought emotion, etc. I would’ve liked to learn more about the art, the technique, the legacy of De Lempicka. On the other hand, looking at De Lempicka’s “Jazz Age” work now, famously posterized, I would not say they are masterpieces worth analyzing to the nth degree, but perhaps, like lesbian affairs back in the 1920s, they were outrageous and daring at the time.

Little is known about the model called Rafaela Fano, so Avery did a good job of building a shadow into a character. Still, the tone for her interpretation of the events that led to those nude paintings are predestined by De Lempicka’s own description of when she saw Rafaela the first time, which was a straightforward expression of painterly lust. (Kizette Foxhall de Lempicka. Passion by Design: the Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka, New York: Abbeville Press, 1987, p. 80).

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