Month: August 2016

Book Review – The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

There’s a phenomenon in the field of letters that I call “the 75 per center.” I use this expression to describe books that engrossed me for three quarters of the way through. The remaining portion failed to live up to the beginning so badly that I regretted investing the time to read the book. After Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train I now welcome the newest member of the “75 per center” club: Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child.

This story began with immense promise. Set in the 1920 Alaska, Mabel and Jack had just moved there. They’d left their families and Pennsylvania home following the death of their child shortly after his birth. The wilderness proved much harsher than expected. They faced that struggle while tacitly confronting the deterioration of their marriage. Then a young girl entered their lives. “Mabel saw her glancing blue eyes and small, impish face. She was no more than eight or nine years old.” (Page 56) Jack wondered if his wife hallucinated. Then he encountered her also.

I liked that story line. I also thought the author did a nice job adding the character of Esther Benson. This neighbor and veteran of the Alaskan wilderness possessed a more positive outlook and strong disposition. She provided an exceptional contrast to Mabel. Her interactions with the couple made her very likable for readers like me.

I found The Snow Child very well written. I thought the following passages outstanding.

Garrett wasn’t prepared for the screaming. Faina’s voice had always been clear and serene, like a glacier pond, but now it was ripped from her throat in a beastly, tortured growl. (Page 360)

The leaden sky seemed to hold its breath. (Page 22)

She had imagined that in the Alaska wilderness silence would be peaceful, like snow falling at night, air filled with promise but no sound, but that was not what she found. Instead, when she swept the plank floor, the broom bristles scritched like some sharp-toothed shrew nibbling at the heart. (Page 3)

In addition to the alliteration cited above, the author included some in her description of a “barely broken, better” horse. (Page 12)

All of these aspects made The Snow Child an enthralling read. The author really hooked me into wanting to know what would happen next.

And now the bad news.

The legend of “the snow child” served as the cohesive theme that held the entire story together. Mabel’s father worked as a literature professor at the University of Pennsylvania. During her youth he shared a book with her that illustrated several such tales. (I write illustrated because the tome’s author wrote in Russian.) In addition Ms. Ivey included excerpts from several of these myths as the introductions to Parts One, Two and Three of her novel. As a writer myself, I did appreciate the author’s sharing her source of inspiration with readers.

I’ll avoid spoilers, but I will note that others have criticized the Part Three of the book as well. It seemed to me that the author may have attempted to incorporate elements from various “snow child” tales into the character of Faina. Because of the diversity in these legends, I didn’t see a lot of opportunities for overlap. I thought that if the author selected one, focused on it and then applied it to her story it would have given the book a more understandable and gratifying ending.

I found the first two parts of The Snow Child that rare combination of a well-written tale with a great story. Part Three ruined it for me. I felt very glad that I could go outside and experience the warmth of summer after finishing it.

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Book Review – Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

Bruce Willis once observed that “art imitates life and, sometimes, life imitates art. It’s a weird combination of elements.” Ms. Nafisi took a much more unorthodox approach to that axiom in Reading Lolita in Tehran. The author lived in Tehran during the late 1970s. A professor of literature by trade, she applied its lessons to the vast cultural and political changes taking place in Iran during the time period. An innovative and engaging read resulted.

Disgusted by the repression and censorship of the country’s universities, Ms. Nafisi rebelled in the way she knew best. She started a book club with a group of her students. The book’s most interesting observations concerned Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

Since the author taught this material for a living, she brought up a number of erudite insights. Her personal experiences during the revolution provided her with a unique way to apply those perceptions.  She observed:

The desperate truth of Lolita’s story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man, but the confiscation of one individual’s life by another. (Page 33)

And:

Humbert (the protagonist of Lolita), like most dictators, was only interested in his own vision of other people. (Page 48)

Ms. Nafisi also included anecdotes from before she resigned her position. I really enjoyed how she referenced examples from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. She wrote, “Empathy lies at the heart of Gatsby, like so many other great novels—the biggest sin is to be blind to others’ problems and pains.” (Page 132)

Ms. Nafisi’s most incisive quote came when she compared the character of Jay Gatsby to the Iranian Revolution.

When I left class that day, I did not tell them what I myself was just beginning to discover: how similar our own fate was becoming to Gatsby’s. He wanted to fulfill his dream by repeating the past, and in the end he discovered that the past was dead, the present a sham, and there was no future. Was this not similar to our revolution, which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream? (Page 144)

For a work of non-fiction the author added some outstanding lyrical flourishes.

We would take turns reading passages aloud, and words literally rose up in the air and descended upon us like a fine mist, touching all five senses. (Page 172)

This was a period of hope, true, but when we harbor the illusion that times of hope are devoid of tensions and conflicts when, in my experience, they are the most dangerous. (Page 276)

First, none of us can avoid being contaminated by the world’s evils; it’s all a matter of what attitude you take towards them. (Page 330)

The author added some fantastic interpretations of Henry James’ work.

The truth is that James, like many other great writers and artists, had chosen his own loyalties and nationality. His true country, his true home, was that of the imagination. (Page 216)

…So many of his protagonists are unhappy in the end, and yet he gives them an aura of victory. It is because these characters depend to such a high degree on their own sense of integrity that, for them, victory has nothing to do with happiness. It has more to do with a settling within one’s self, a movement inward that makes them whole. Their reward is not happiness—a word that is central in Austen’s novels, but is seldom used in James’ universe. What James’ characters gain is self-respect. (Page 225)

From a personal standpoint, I most enjoyed her commentary on various authors and their work. I should point out that the author also included condensed biographies of all the women who took part in the book discussions. It’s always refreshing to get a sense of true human drama in non-fiction.

Ms. Nafisi wrote, “Evil in (Jane) Austen, as in most great fiction, lies in the inability to ‘see’ others, hence to empathize with them.” (Page 315) After reading this book, I developed more empathy for those who experienced the Iranian Revolution first hand. The author and her students risked arrest or worse to study some great works of literature. The fact that most of us in the West can do so without fear of punishment is not something we should ever take for granted.

Book Review – Mourning Sham by Kati Waronka

One of the most gripping events of our time is the conflict in Syria. It’s fitting that contemporary authors explore the human drama of this catastrophe in their work. Kati Waronka’s novel Mourning Sham did just that. The author explained its impact on the lives of four fictitious characters. As a fan of literature and a student of international relations I had high expectations when I began reading. Sadly, Mourning Sham failed to meet them.

I liked the characters’ diversity. Maha lived in Lebanon. She discovered her pregnancy while her husband performed some secretive work in Syria. Leila lived a luxurious life in Kuwait. Nisreen utilized blogging from inside Syria to express her disdain with the Assad regime. Huda joined a militia and took part in the armed rebellion against the government. All of these personalities could have made for extraordinarily compelling characters.

With that preface it even surprises me to admit they weren’t compelling. I found them lacking in depth and emotion. At one point in the story Leila succumbed to depression. This presented an exceptional opportunity to explore the character’s feelings. Here’s the author’s depiction of a tense scene. The doctor informed Leila’s husband about her condition following a suicide attempt.

In the Emergency Room, Hassoun was told by an American doctor who was a friend of the family that Leila’s situation was precarious. She was not too far gone, though, and they were pumping her stomach. Any further delay and it may have been too late. (Page 265-66)

In addition to not arousing any feelings of empathy in me, I found this segment rather trite and too cliché.

As the most egregious example of a passage lacking feeling, this paragraph describes Leila’s dark thoughts after the medical facility discharged her.

These feelings were all still there, and not a few times in the two days since she had been released from the hospital did she again contemplate ending it all. When on the highway in a taxi, she caught herself daydreaming about jumping out; when getting something in the kitchen, the sight of the knife block evoked the image of blood oozing from her wrists; and she wondered where Hassoun had hidden the medications and contemplated going straight to a pharmacy in Beirut for a refill. (Page 280)

After getting through the confusing opening sentence, the rest of this section read with the same passion and sentiment of a phone book. I couldn’t comprehend expressing thoughts of ending one’s life so dispassionately.

Unfortunately the book included other examples of poor writing.  I found terrible use of exposition in this sentence: “’For sure,’ Leila agreed. She was proud to be a resident of Kuwait. A great place to live.” (Page 6) I thought the author used too many adjectives in describing Beirut’s “infamous smothering humidity.” (Page 15) I also read the cliché, “Wow! You haven’t changed at all!” (Page 17)

I cited these examples as a prelude to the following. This sentence went into exposition overdrive.

He would never let on that he, one of the few remaining stalwarts of the Christian-dominated French-speaking Lebanese Paris-of-the-Middle-East that had reigned before the Lebanese civil war began in 1975, approved of a Syrian reunion in his little shop. (Page 17)

Get all that?

To be fair to the author, she did include some good usage of language as well. I liked her use of simile in this passage:

She had no vocabulary for the disquiet she now began to feel as reality began to settle over her weakened heart, like a paperweight might land on a feather pillow. (Page 7)

I also liked the expressions, “To preserve her honor, she was turning in her dignity” (Page 315), “’But Mama, I don’t want to leave you, you are my home’”, (Page 215) and “By the time the sun awoke…” (Page 254)

I liked the overall story concept in Mourning Sham. I didn’t care for the presentation and character descriptions. The book read more like a first draft than a completed novel. Should Ms. Waronka revise and make the writing more sophisticated and infuse the characters with more emotion, I would be happy to read a subsequent edition of the book.