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Book Review: Hotel du Lac

20191207_113121.jpgThe other day I was in my classroom watching my students take a quiz, not an exciting activity, I assure you. Glancing over my bookshelves, I spied a copy of Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac. I pulled out the slim volume and perused the back which gave no indication of its content but rather hailed its winning of the Booker Prize (back in 1984). I then remembered reading another Brookner novel, Visitors, which I enjoyed immensely and, quite honestly, was drawn to this one because of its short length—it is nearing the end of the year, and I am dangerously close to not making my reading goal on my Goodreads Book Challenge.

Within a page or two of reading, I was reminded how much I like Anita Brookner. Her voice is controlled, yet fraught with tension. The novel is a quiet scream. It’s “women’s fiction” for those who think “women’s fiction” is too insipid or irrelevant. This is a thinking woman’s novel. And in perfect irony, the main character is a romance novelist. Edith Hope is an English romance novelist who arrives at the title hotel on Lake Geneva, having been sent there by persons at first unknown to atone for social crimes also unrevealed at first. As a novelist, Edith is successful; in social settings, she is controlled and introspective and doesn’t trust her own judgment. It is near the end of the season, and the crowds are gone. Remaining are a small coterie of regular visitors, each escaping or banished from their own sad realities.

Through a combination of third-person narration and first person letters written by Edith to “Dearest David,” Brookner weaves a quietly complex tale of the inhibitions and self-doubt even the calmest and most assured possessed. Edith is a self-effacing woman whom others tend to dominate; yet, she discovers she does have her own quiet will and desire. Much of the novel occurs in Edith’s thoughts and reflections; yet, these are based on her interactions with others. There is an intensity to the language and emotion that renders the essentially simple plot significant. Brookner hooked me on the first page by describing Lake Geneva as “spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore,” setting the tenor of the hotel as somewhere one goes to forget. Yet Edith learns, as we all must, that one cannot forget the past or erase who one essentially is.

Book Review: The Testaments

The TestamentsDare I say I liked it even better than The Handmaid’s Tale? Of course this is with the stipulation that this would not be the case if I had not read The Handmaid’s Tale first. The former completely horrified me, as it should. Reading The Testaments, I was naturally more prepared for the misogynistic world of Gilead. In addition, the narrative voices of Aunt Lydia, Agnes, and, well to avoid spoilers I won’t name the other narrator, are closer, more intimate and more educated than that of Offred. The narrative voice of The Handmaid’s Tale keeps the reader at arm’s length. The Testaments is more conspiratorial. I was drawn in immediately and read more quickly. I didn’t want to put it down.

The tale is told, as indicated above, from three perspectives: one has been brought up in Gilead; one has been brought up outside of Gilead; and one experienced the revolution that destroyed the USA and created Gilead. These three characters converge bringing their sometimes clashing viewpoints and ideologies together. The result is a broader picture of the world in which Gilead exists. And that world is still frightening, not only in Gilead’s twisted theocracy but also in the reaction of the wider world to it.

Finally, as with The Handmaid’s Tale, the book ends with a partial transcript of a scholarly symposium on Gileadean studies discussing the discovery of the testaments of these various characters (hence the title!). Dare I hope that there is a hint therein of another possible volume in the future?

A sequel to a much loved book that has been taught in countless classrooms, that resonates so much in today’s world that Hulu has turned it into a much loved series is a tinderbox of a task. So much is expected and so much has already been imagined in the minds of the readers. If the result were redundant or poorly executed, the backlash could have been severe, but Margaret Atwood is all the writer we expect her to be and more. She has delivered a novel entirely worthy of its predecessor and its fans. Praise be.

An American Marriage

This book is both devastating and gripping. Reading Roy and Celestial’s accounts of what happened and their letters to each other in Part One left me crying (on the train, no less). I almost didn’t want to go on because I knew more pain and heartbreak awaited me– as well as anger, particularly at Celestial and later at Andre. But that is part of the beauty of Tayari Jones’s writing. The characters are so real, and the situation is far too believable. The whole roiling pot of human emotions at the injustice done to Roy and the consequences thereof to everyone grasps the reader from the beginning and does not let go.

Perhaps I should have given it five stars, but I am far too angry at Celestial, particularly in her Part One letters and her Part Two belief in her own illusions to do so.

Don’t Get Mad, Get Writing

Today I had a conference to go to for work. We met at work and traveled together to the Bronx where our conference day was held. It took about two and a half hours from home to the school. If I had driven, I could have been the in 25 minutes, but there was nowhere to park. But my darling husband offered to pick me up at the end of the day to save me two hours on the way home. And then, he made a little mistake and went to my school instead of the one where I was.

I was mad. Everyone else left on the bus back to Manhattan. I had to sit around for 40 minutes in a large, nearly empty auditorium in a school I didn’t know, in a neighborhood I didn’t know.

And then I glanced at my bag and saw my notebook. Forty minutes later, I was still writing when he called to say he was there and significant strides were made on my story. Time well spent.

Twitter Tree Monday

In an effort to promote my Etsy shop, I tried a Twitter Tree this morning, sharing a couple of my own wares and then promoting others. Here’s a link to the original post with many diverse items to view and buy. There’s holiday jewellery- Halloween, Christmas and Hanukkah- as well as other jewelry, ponchos, lithographs, jewellery-bags for craft fairs, and more.

It’s Good To Be Home

Today my students, my inner-city high school students, asked me what my book is about. After giving them a brief synopsis, some said, “I want to read that.” “First I need to finish writing it,” I replied.

Now maybe, quite possibly, they were just trying to butter up their English teacher, but still, they reminded me to keep working on it. So, when I missed my train home by a minute and had a half hour to kill, I brought it to life instead by grabbing some napkins from Starbucks and scribbling a new part of the story. Who knows if this will make it in, but at least I’m back in the story’s world, a place I’d been away from for far too long.

It’s good to be home.

A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

A Place for Us CoverHonestly, I think I like this book better in retrospect than I did while reading it. And that fact is both a positive and negative. There were times I just wasn’t that interested in picking up the book again, but I did and was glad I did.

On the positive side, Mirza does such a good job of making her characters real. I was often cringing at what Amar might do next. It feels obvious that he has a good heart and he wants to do the right thing, but he is lost; he doesn’t know how to fit in–in his community, in his family, in his own mind. And his mother, his sisters, even Amira don’t know how to help him either because despite the love they feel for one another, they do not know how to share their feelings–everyone assuming that everyone else had everything figured out–and Amar is the most lost of all of them, not being able to find footing in the shifting sands between old world and new. Yes, this is a positive. Mirza’s skill at characterization brings them all to life. We feel for them; we want to laugh, cry, and yell with/at them.

Nonetheless, I was not always engaged in the reading because of the way Mirza shifts perspective and time throughout the first three parts of the novel. This stylistic choice does not necessarily have to be a negative. I enjoy seeing a story from multiple perspectives. Maggie Estep’s Hex, Gargantuan, and Alice Fantastic or George R.R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice make use of the technique quite successfully. However, Mirza fails to signal the shifts adequately. Too often I had to reread a section, or part of it, to figure out WHEN we are in the narrative. (See spoiler alert below for an example.)

The fourth part which culminates the novel is my favorite. It is all from one perspective, Rafiq’s, full of his experiences as an old man and his reflections on his own life and his interactions with his children, particularly Amar. He even speaks directly to an absent Amar, trying to explain himself, to say all those things he didn’t know how to say earlier. No, this part wouldn’t have been possible without the earlier parts from the others’ perspectives, particularly Amar’s and Layla’s, but here is where Mirza’s prose shines. Her nostalgic tone draws us in and draws her tale to a successful conclusion (leaving me with that retrospective appreciation for the novel).

Ultimately, A Place for Us is a heartbreaking/heartwarming novel of family life and the clash when old world meets new. I recommend it for your book club–there’s lots to discuss.

***SPOILER ALERT: You can skip this part if you haven’t read the book.
One example of a particularly confusing shift occurs when Layla goes to Seema about Amar and Amira’s relationship. I read most of that section thinking, “But what does this matter now? Amira has already broken things off with Amar.” Of course, she hadn’t. We’d seen that scene from Amar’s point of view. Now we are learning the motivation for it. It’s actually a clever tactic that is so poorly signaled that we lose our connection to the story. Our narrative engagement is broken trying to figure out the shift. ***SPOILER ENDS


Fahrenheit 451

I’ve known “the story” of this book for ages, but I’ve only just actually read it because I have to teach it (next week). I don’t know why I’ve waited so long. Even basically knowing the plot, I was riveted. There is so much of this 1950 novel relevant to today, not only the censorship and the perception of a waning interest in reading (though not among my friends and family), but also in Bradbury’s prescient images of individual will consumed by social media. I am still working out how I will use the description of Mildred at the end with my students. I see such a resemblance to the blank stares and meaning chatter one hears from those with airpods in their ears and their eyes stuck on a screen. (Yes, I get the irony of the fact that I’m writing this, and you’re reading this on a screen.)

Then, there is Bradbury’s “Coda,” written in 1979. I found myself cheering on this curmudgeonly voice saying, “Leave my works alone! If you don’t like it write your own!” (Not an actual quotation. Just what I sum his position up as.)

I am looking forward to taking about this with my students.