Saturday, October 31, 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry

80. Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger

It seems only appropriate to observe Hallowe'en by reviewing a novel in which one of the main characters is a ghost.

Elspeth Noblin and Edwina Moore are twins who have been estranged for years. When Elspeth dies, she leaves her entire estate to her nieces, Valentina and Julia, who are mirror twins, with the stipulation that they must reside in flat, overlooking Highgate Cemetery, for one year, and that their parents must not set foot in the place. When the twins arrive, they discover that although Elspeth may be dead, she still inhabits her old home. At first merely a felt presence, she gradually begins to be seen by, and then to communicate with, the twins, as well as her lover, who lives in the flat below.

Valentina and Julia have very different personalities. Julia is the dominant and decisive twin, who looks after asthmatic and timid Valentina. Each becomes involved with a neighbor, Valentina becoming attached to Robert, Elspeth's younger lover, and Julia spending time with Martin, the upstairs neighbor whose OCD keeps him indoors all the time and led his wife to return to her native Netherlands.

As their year passes, Valentina's desire for independence intersects with and is seized upon by Elspeth's ghost, who conceives a scheme to help her break free of Julia, a scheme in which they involve Robert. (And that's about all I can say without giving a lot away!)

I've been a fan of Niffenegger's writing for years, when I discovered her writing the catalog for Chicago's Center for Book and Paper Arts (though I don't think she writes it any more), and Her Fearful Symmetry did not disappoint. This is an eerie book, with surprises around every corner, beautifully evocative. At certain points, I found myself wanting to say, "No! Don't do that! It's a mistake!", and actually stopped reading occasionally because I feared what would happen next. I wasn't always right.

Readers of Niffenegger's other works with recognize the Gothic sensibility as well as a variety of familiar themes: rival sisters, pregnancy, odd physical characteristics (Valentina has situs inversus, in which the internal organs are reversed), wandering ghosts, flight (in both senses of the word). There were images which here are in words but that I recalled from her illustrated novels, The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress. In this novel, as well as The Time Traveler's Wife, she has taken ideas which in those novels are presented in isolated and (generally) unspecified locations and times, and placed them in the contemporary world, where they are all the more startling for their incongruity.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Venezia: Food & Dreams

79. Venezia: Food & Dreams, by Tessa Kiros

In this culinary love letter to and about Venice, Tessa Kiros has gathered traditional Veneziani recipes for your delectation. Obviously, it's heavy on seafood, with many recipes for sardines, octopus, scampi, etc. The recipes are easy to follow, and before each she gives a little description of the dish or the process, or gives a serving suggestion. Her language is delightful; instead of telling you to cook the radicchio until it is soft, she says "until it surrenders its hardness".

Equal time must be given to the photographer and the book designer. The book is chock-ful of gorgeous color and black-and-white photographs of Venice and of the food. And, as an object, the book itself must be described. Heavy, with gilded edges and a wide black velvet book marker, it will definitely not be used in my kitchen. And that's one of the drawbacks. It's one thing to drip some oil or chocolate on my battered copy of The Joy of Cooking or Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but this one is far to elaborate to expose to the vicissitudes of la cucina. In addition, the American cook will likely find it difficult to locate some of the ingredients. Even in Chicago, with a good produce store down the street, I can't recall ever having seen radicchio di Treviso.

But never mind. I shall curl up with this book and a glass of Prosecco from time to time, and dream of returning to Venice, and the best sea bass I've ever had:

Lunch on Burano

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Girl From Foreign

78. The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories and a Sense of Home, by Sadia Shepard

Sadia Shepard parents were from very different worlds, her father an American-born Protestant, her mother a Pakistani-born Muslim of Indian descent. But in fact the third major monotheistic religion is also represented in Shepard's background, as her mother's mother was a Jew who converted to Islam upon her marriage. When she was dying, Shepard's grandmother urged Sadia to go to India to learn about this part of her history. Fulbright fellowship in hand, Sadia did so, and this book is the result (along with a documentary film - Shepard is a filmmaker).

Shepard's grandmother's family were members of the Bene Israel (or Beni-Israel), Indian Jews whose tradition says that they were shipwrecked off the coast of India, although the dates and reasons are varied, some saying it was after the destruction of the Second Temple, others that they arrived during the reign of King Solomon, and there are other stories as well.

It would be a mistake, however, to expect this book to be a history of the Bene Israel. It's not, and wasn't intended to be. It's a family history, the story of Shepard's family, here, in India, and in Pakistan (where they moved after Partition). In the course of learning that history, she learns about the present-day Bene Israel, a community that is diminishing, as the younger generation looks towards Israel as a homeland, but still striving to maintain its traditions. The book is also the story of how Shepard adjusts to living in India, her friendships and study there. She sees it now through her own eyes and that of her grandmother. Shepard also is trying to find out if she needs to choose one religious path, or if she can reconcile and merge the three traditions into which she was born. It's a struggle that she hasn't resolved, one that most children of mixed religious and ethnic backgrounds go through.

I was struck by the contrast between the warm personal relationships among Muslim, Jew and Hindi and the political conflicts caused by Partition. It's a great sadness and shame and wonder that the adherents of different religions can appreciate and admire and help one another, can be close friends and associates, and yet be willing to kill each other because they worship the same god in different ways.

For another book on the same subject, you might want to read Carmit Delman's Burnt Bread and Chutney: Growing up between cultures: a Memoir of an Indian Jewish girl.

Beni-Israel, from the Jewish Encyclopedia.

The Language of Bees

77. The Language of Bees, by Laurie R. King

Although I am not ordinarily fond of books that take a well-known character of another author and place him (or her) in a situation that the originating author would have found ludicrous, it is nevertheless the case that I enjoy King's Mary Russell series, despite the fact that she has contrived to marry off Sherlock Holmes. That in itself is quite contrary to Holmes' nature as created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but, on top of that, she marries him off to a woman far younger than himself. And in this book, she has given him a son by Irene Adler (a/k/a "The Woman").

Russell and Holmes have returned to Sussex following a lengthy sojourn abroad (the details of which are available in King's previous books). One of Holmes' bee colonies has been engaging in very odd swarming behavior, but more seriously, his estranged son, a brilliant Surrealist painter, appears to announce that his wife and young daughter have disappeared. Mary and Holmes proceed to investigate, with Holmes attempting to do so while keeping his relationship with Damian Adler secret. Yolanda Adler's background is a dubious one, to say the least. That, as well as Damian's past involvement with the law, former drug addiction and shell-shock (what we would call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) from his war experiences, cause suspicion to fall upon him when his wife's body is found. It appears that her murder may be related to other odd murders that have been occurring.

Although this book was a compelling read, it was, ultimately, a bit unsatisfying. For one thing, I am a bit tired of mysterious cults, and I'm afraid we're going to get more of the one that King created for this book. More seriously, though, is the fact that too many threads were left hanging, too many questions remain unanswered.

So only a mild recommendation.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Mr. Jefferson's University

76. Mr. Jefferson's University, by Garry Wills

There are certain writers who can write compellingly about any subject to which they turn a hand, who can, even if the subject is one in which you would ordinarily have no interest, make you sit up late to finish "just another page". Garry Wills is, for me, one of those writers. So to have him write a book about a favorite subject (architecture) and a favorite historical personage (Thomas Jefferson) is a real treat.

Jefferson and Wills have a lot in common, both being men who did not confine their interests and erudition to even a few subjects. In addition to his political interests, Jefferson was an inventor, a designer, an architect, and not in a dabbling, dilettantish way. One of his projects was the campus of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. Wills' book describes the result in great detail (perhaps too great for some, but not for me!), accompanying the text with elevations, preliminary drawings and photographs, as he lays out the relationship of the buildings with each other and with the landscape, and, more important, the aesthetic behind the choices.

But the book is not merely about the buildings. It also is a history of the politics behind the founding of the school, of the difficulties of choosing and keeping faculty in those early years, both fascinating stories.

I find that now I would very much like to travel to Charlottesville, with this book in hand, to re-read it in situ, and see the place through Jefferson's eyes and mind.

[University of Virginia, J.Serz, 1856
], Special Collections, University of Virginia Library

On Jane Austen

74. Jane Austen: A Life, by Claire Tomalin

If you read only one biography of Jane Austen, read this one. It's not only extraordinarily well-researched, it's as readable as Austen herself. Witty, detailing the Austen family's daily life, not shirking at scandal (cousin Elizabeth may have really been the daughter of Warren Hastings) and never presenting speculation as fact (though not failing to provide factual support for what speculation there is), Tomalin gives great insight into Jane Austen. She does not make the mistake of assuming that Austen's books are biographical, but does show how Austen (not unlike most authors) has taken the threads of her life, her friends and family, and woven from the briliant tapestry of her novels.

Tomalin provides a good deal of information not only about the Austens, but about the world in which they lived, what was happening in it of political importance, what life was like for the different classes, how people lived. Interspersed with the biographical material are thoughtful analyses of Austen's works, and Tomalin shows with great clarity how Austen's fictional world meshes with the one in which she led her life. This really should be required reading for anyone who complains that Austen doesn't share the modern view of what a woman should think and feel and do.

This is a truly impressive undertaking, and one which has well succeeded. Tomalin makes us feel that we know Jane Austen, the girl and the woman, as well as her relations and relationships, and, in so doing, allows us to take our well-read copies of the novels down from our bookshelves and re-read them with greater insight and appreciation.

75. Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, by Fay Weldon

Weldon's imaginary niece, Alice, wants to write a novel. What she doesn't want to do, despite doing a college course in English Literature, is read Jane Austen. Weldon sets out to show her why she should.

Weldon, as a novelist, has a rather different take on some of the received wisdom about Austen. She refers to James Austen-Leigh's famous comment about Austen covering her work when others entered the room, which has led some to speculate that she was ashamed of her work. Weldon notes that "[m]ost writers choose to cover their work when someone else comes into the room", not wanting to answer questions such as "And who is this Mr. Knightley?" One of the most delightful things about this book is to read a writer's take on Austen and her work and works.

But that's not all. Her description of Literature as a "City of Invention" is one of the best things I've read in a long time. Books are the buildings, writers the architects. I'm sure we can all name a few books that fit this description: Sometimes you'll find quite a shoddy building so well placed and painted that it quite takes the visitor in, and the critics as well - and all cluster round, crying, 'Lo, a masterpiece!' and award it prizes. But the passage of time, the peeling of paint, the very lack of concerned visitors, reveals it in the end for what it is: a house of no interest or significance.