Monday, April 24, 2017

A High Wind in Jamaica

Welsh writer Richard Hughes published A High Wind in Jamaica in 1929 (sometimes published in the U.S. under the title The Innocent Voyage), and the playwright’s novel would go on to be turned into a Broadway production by dramatist Paul Osborn in 1943.  The novel was also adapted for a 1965 movie of the same title that starred Anthony Quinn and James Coburn, and was performed as a radio play on two occasions (once in 1950 and then again in 2000).  To say the least, the novel has had a good run.

Despite all of that, I was unfamiliar with the novel and its author until I heard Ann Patchett praise it at the San Antonio book festival a couple of weeks ago in a conversation she had there with author Elizabeth McCracken.  It is Patchett’s theory that A High Wind in Jamaica has served as the blueprint for countless novels about children who are totally oblivious to the dangerous circumstances they may suddenly find themselves in.  She admits to more than once having used the pattern herself, including in her current novel, Commonwealth (a novel that turns out to be much more autobiographical than I would have imagined before hearing the author speak about it).

Anthony Quinn, James Coburn in the 1965 movie version
A High Wind in Jamaica tells the story of a group of children being sent to England from Jamaica by their parents so that they can attend boarding schools in the mother country.  The children, all of them roughly between the ages of three and ten years old, are sent on their own – the youngest children being in the complete care of their older brothers and sisters.  Unfortunately, the rather lazy and negligent captain of the vessel on which they leave for England, allows his boat to be boarded and taken by a small group of the most incompetent “pirates” in the history of piracy.  The cowardly captain, in fact, makes a run for his own freedom, abandoning the children to the pirates who had temporarily moved the kids to their own little boat.  Now, the Danish pirate captain and his crew are stuck with a bunch of kids they have no idea what to do with – try as they might to figure it all out.

To the kids, who never realize that their very lives are in jeopardy, it is all one big adventure and soon enough they are climbing ropes and getting into trouble at a pace that astounds even the roughest of the pirate crew.  The captain knows that he has to get rid of the children one way or the other if he is going to be able to avoid capture and prison – or worse – but no one wants to take them off his hands.

Richard Hughes
Richard Hughes tries to take the reader inside the minds of the children and what they see from their distinctive points-of-view, his theory being that the minds of children do not work anything remotely like the minds of adults work.  This is a point that none of the adults in the story ever seem to figure out – and the repercussions stemming from this oversight are both comic and tragic.  In the end, the children who live through the prolonged “kidnapping” may be the least affected by what happened to them on the high seas around Cuba. 

Bottom Line: A High Wind in Jamaica is clever piece of satire that manages to be both a comedy and a tragedy.  It is easy to see why the short novel (191 pages) has been popular for so long, and if Ann Patchett’s theory is correct, why it will remain a studied piece of writing for decades to come.  Despite its sometimes-tedious writing style, this one makes for an interesting read.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues

Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, began keeping her Book of Books (the “Bob” referenced in this memoir’s title) in 1988 when she was just a high school junior.  (As a point of reference, I began my own “Bob” in 1970, a few months before I turned twenty-one.)  Paul describes Bob as “factory-made, gray and plain, with a charcoal binding and white unlined paper, an inelegant relic from the days before bookstores stocked Moleskine notebooks,” exactly the kind of non-descript little book, I suspect, guaranteed to remain forever safe from the prying eyes of outsiders. 

In twenty-two chapters, each chapter carrying the title of one of the books listed in Bob, Paul exhibits just how precisely she is able to reconstruct segments of her past by studying Bob’s pages.  Each of the books chosen for chapters of their own remind the author of where she was both “psychologically and geographically” when she first read them.  By studying the list to see which books she read before and after the highlighted title, Paul can easily see whether the earlier books put her in the mood for more of the same or pushed her toward reading something very different.  Too, if her reading choices moved in a new direction, she can quickly determine how long that new interest or trend lasted.  And she confirmed something concerning one’s memory about which most avid readers will readily agree: Keeping a list of fiction read does very little to solidify the recall of characters or plot details – what it does do is provide a better understanding of changes in one’s own “character.”

Pamela Paul
My Life with Bob is an intimate look into the life of a woman who has made books and reading the central core of her life.  She has had many roles during her life:  student, daughter, wife, mother, etc., but I suspect that she takes equal joy in knowing that reader is an essential term others would use to describe who she is – and always has been. 

Readers are a curious lot, and one of the things we are most curious about is what others are reading.  We cannot resist browsing the bookshelves of those whose homes we visit, often altering our opinions (either upwardly or downwardly) about those being visited according to what we see on their shelves.  We find ourselves straining to read the titles of books on shelves sitting behind pictures of celebrities and politicians because we know that people are more likely to reveal their true nature and level of curiosity by what they choose to display on their private bookshelves than by what comes out of their mouths.  We can’t help ourselves; that’s the way we are.

If you are one of those people, you are going to love My Life with Bob because Pamela Paul is a kindred spirit who gets it.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Story of Arthur Truluv

Arthur, a man in his mid-eighties, has lunch with his wife Nola every day of the week.  No big deal, you are probably thinking.  Where else is a man of that age more likely to have lunch than at home with his wife?  In Arthur’s case, it’s not quite that simple.  Nola, you see, is dead, so Arthur brings his lunch and a little folding chair to the cemetery every noontime so that he can talk to Nola while eating.  Some would say that Arthur is pretty obviously ready to cash in his own chips so that he and Nola can be together again – and maybe there’s some truth there.  But then Arthur meets Maddy, a teenager who spends almost as much time at the cemetery as he does, and his world gets interesting.

Maddy, whose mother died in an auto accident when Maddy was just two weeks old, is as lonely as Arthur, and as the friendship between the old man and the teen becomes more and more important to each of them, Maddy (because she is so impressed with Arthur’s lasting love for his deceased wife) tags him with the nickname “Truluv.” Things really get interesting when Arthur’s elderly next-door neighbor Lucile, having observed the new relationship between Maddy and Arthur, decides that she wants to get in on some of the fun herself. 

The Story of Arthur Truluv is one of those rare coming-of-age novels that are just as much about the end of life as they are about growing up.  Two of its three central characters are very near the end of their lives, and the third is just on the brink of beginning hers.  The beauty of the novel is that all three of them bring something unique to the communal relationship, something that adds to the feeling of family that soon develops between them. 

Bottom Line: The Story of Arthur Truluv is a little too predictable to keep the reader guessing much about how it all will end, and that’s a shame because there are some great moments in the novel.  But even though there is never any doubt that things are going to work out well for Arthur, Maddy, and Lucile in the end, Elizabeth Berg is good enough a storyteller to keep readers turning the pages anyway.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Long Black Veil

Long Black Veil is a difficult novel to get into because the author immediately introduces about eight characters known only by their first names – and since several of the first names are non-gender-specific nicknames, it is difficult even to be certain at first of the sex of some of the characters.  I would suggest jotting down a note or two for each character as they are introduced as a way of maybe easing yourself into the story.

The story itself is about a group of misfits who become friends during their freshman year of college.  And what misfits, they are.  I’m trying hard here to think of one of the bunch that is even remotely normal, but I’m coming up empty.  They were lucky to find each other and even luckier that the friendships endured for four years because not long after leaving school, one of them was dead under very mysterious circumstances, circumstances that ended the friendships.

The group’s fatal mistake is to visit an abandoned Philadelphia prison on a “dark and stormy night” during which someone decides to lock them inside.  In the near-panic that followed, one of the girls, Wailer,” disappears and is never seen again – never seen again, that is, until thirty years later when someone discovers her remains where the body had been hidden all those years ago.

Now the pressure is on to figure out why Wailer died, who killed her, and who has been covering up the crime for so long.  Is a member of the old group guilty?   Will they turn on each other?  Do others have to die before Wailer’s murder is finally solved?

Jennifer Finney Boylan is certainly not afraid to move her plot along, and in the process, she takes the reader on quite a ride.  Just about the time you begin to believe that the plot has been stretched to its breaking point, Boylan stretches it even farther (but for some readers these additional stretches may be stretches too far to retain credibility).  Long Black Veil makes for fun reading but it’s a hard novel to take very seriously.  If this were a movie, it would probably be playing at your local drive-in theater…if you still have one of those around.

"What It's Really Like to Be a Book Nerd"

From Barnes & Noble:

"What It's Really Like to Be a Book Nerd" - and it's only slightly exaggerated.  Lots of truth here, guys.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Native Believer

Native Believer is the story of M., a second-generation Muslim American who knows almost nothing about the faith.  M., who was raised in the South, is married to Marie-Ann, a white Southerner, and the two have made a rather comfortable life for themselves.  It is only when M. throws a party for his co-workers and invites their new boss that things start to go bad for him – in a hurry.

The rather odd Germanic man seems to be enjoying M.’s company but when he spots a tiny Koran on the top bookshelf in M.’s apartment, the new boss makes an offhand comment about finding the Koran placed “above” all the other books on the shelves, especially those of some of the world’s most respected philosophers.  The very next day, M. is called into the man’s office and fired.

M. wants nothing more from life than to be an American, a man with roots and children he intends to raise as modern Americans, not as Muslims.  But after the murders of 9-11, it is not that simple.  M. carries a Muslim name, and in today’s America, he is ethnically challenged enough to be seen as a suspicious person almost everywhere he goes.  Now his life is falling apart.

His wife resents that he cannot find work, and the tension between the two aggravates the medical condition that causes her to gain huge amounts of weight in a matter of weeks.  Their marriage is beginning to fall apart, and there is little that either of them seems to care to do about it. 

M. is at a crossroads.  As he wanders Philadelphia’s streets on foot, he runs into a group of devout Muslims who mistrust his lack of piety and want to convert him; he befriends a Muslim pornographer who says he is trying to get Americans to see Muslim men as anything other than terrorists; and Marie-Ann’s job brings him into contact with other Muslims who want him to help spread the good word about life in America to suspicious Muslims all around the world.  In the meantime, M. feels like his world is being ripped apart.

Native Believer makes for a bit tedious reading at times, but it is filled with characters I wanted to know more about.  M.’s struggle for a self-identity seems very real in today’s world, and I very much wanted to see how Eteraz would resolve his main character’s dilemma.  Let’s just say that the book’s final two pages are nothing like I expected it would all end – so do not, under any circumstance, read the end of Native Believer first.  Please.