Jun 302012

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë

Read from May 03 to 06, 2012

Three stars

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall suggests that, had she lived, Anne Bronte would have been the greatest artist in her literary family. Not only does this realistic novel tell a story that might have been ripped from the headlines of 2012, but Bronte structures her novel in a highly unconventional way. Rather than a straightforward narrative, Tenant wraps an epistolary tale of letters from farmer Gilbert Markham to a friend around the diary of mysterious Helen Graham, the tenant who intrigues Markham. Each of these characters narrates his own story — Markham describing how his life and love was upended by the arrival of the beautiful but standoffish painter and her young son at a broken-down manor house with only a few rooms fit for habitation and Graham explaining the circumstances that led woman of wealth and breeding to a life as an impoverished hermit in nosy and small-minded rural environs. Through the eyes of Markham and Graham, Bronte depicts the maliciousness of small-town gossips and the debauchery of the wealthy elite, showing her readers a 19th century England that is very far from the village cosiness and court splendor of more well-known novels. She peoples her story with an array of vivid characters, high born and low, who provide a evocative panorama of 19th century English life. Yet this is the story of Gilbert and Helen, an unlikely pair of lovers but ones who readers root for through all the twists and turns of this most modern of tales.

Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë

Read in May 2012

Three stars

Agnes Grey is the first novel of Anne Bronte, the youngest of the storied literary clan who produced two of the enduring novels of the 19th century, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Unlike the stories of her older sisters, Agnes Grey is NOT romantic. In fact, the most striking thing about this novel — and this author — is her realism, which anticipates the work of later writers such as George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. Agnes Gray is the daughter of a minister who loses what little money he has in an investment he’d hoped would make him rich. In hopes of helping support the family, Agnes takes a job as a governess, although she has no experience or training for the post. The children in the first family she serves are spoiled and vicious, problems overlooked by their doting mother and arrogant father. The second family are aristocrats and the children are young girls readying themselves for a marriage market, focusing on finding wealthy husbands with titles rather than companions for the journey through life. Anne Bronte’s depiction of those families is unsparing, almost reportage rather than entertainment, and the misery of Agnes in their homes is believable and heart-breaking. Eventually, she employs her hard-won wisdom in selecting and capturing a man she can both love and respect. And while the end provides the conventional girl-gets-boy finale, the pages leading up to it offer a stark realism that is quite unusual for a novel first published in 1847.

Three Stations, by Martin Cruz Smith

Read from April 19 to 23, 2012

Two stars

Martin Cruz Smith’s latest Arkady Renko novel is a slight book — my version has just 241 pages, about one-third fewer than the earlier novels in this series. And that is one reason that I found it just “okay.” There’s simply less story on offer here than in earlier outings by the Russian investigator. In addition, much of the tale is told from the point of view of other characters — the chess prodigy he has sort of adopted, a young prostitute searching for the infant daughter who was snatched upon her arrival in Moscow, a ‘tween street urchin who acts as mother for a tribe of orphans. There are several mysteries on offer and some of the usual elements of Renko’s life — the clashes with his bosses in the prosecutor’s office, his buddy Orlov, the hideous aspects of the new Russia. Until this title, Smith has consistently delivered engrossing mysteries against a panoramic backdrop of a Russia evolving from the grey monotony of the Soviet Union into the gaudy neon of current oligarchy. Perhaps Russia simply isn’t as interesting these days, or perhaps Smith has tired of his character and setting.

Jun 292012

The Collector, by John Fowles

Read from April 04 to 14, 2012

Two Stars

The Collector was a sensation when it was published because it told the story of a very ordinary working class Englishman, Frederick Clegg, a butterfly collector and lowly clerk who is enamored — at a distance — with a beautiful art student. When he wins a fortune from a bet, he gives up his job and buys an isolated country cottage where he devises a plan to collect his beloved, Miranda Grey. Fowles tells his story from the point of view of both characters — the very conventional but terrifying Clegg and the the very mod but terrified Miranda — and the intercutting viewpoints slowly ratchet up the tension and suspense. Taking the reader inside the head of the deranged Clegg was an unusual innovation in the early 1960s, but in 2012 is pretty old hat, and Clegg himself is tame compared to the villains who came later, such as Hannibel Lecter. The book seemed quite dated and characters, even poor Miranda, not really compelling to a contemporary reader, which is the explanation for the two-star “okay” rating.

The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music, By Steve Lopez

Read from March 14 to April 04, 2012

Three Stars

A friend gave me this book after I watched the movie, and I was intrigued enough by the situation — a newspaper columnist befriends a homeless man — to want to read the original story. What captured the attention of columnist Lopez was the music Nathaniel Ayers coaxed out of his two-string violin on the streets of Los Angeles. The Soloist tells the story of the “unlikely friendship” that grew between the two men as Lopez searched for the facts in Nathaniel’s back story as a Julliard-trained musician while trying to find a stable and safe setting for the musician in hopes he could regain his mental health. What struck me most strongly about this book was how many good people there are out there in the world trying or willing to try to help people like Nathaniel. Count among them psychiatrists who took an interest in his case, workers at homeless shelters who looked for ways to keep him safe, ordinary people who read Lopez’s columns and came forward to offer help — money, musical instruments, etc., musicians like Yo Yo Ma, and institutions like the Los Angeles Philharmonic. And, of course, Lopez who, with his family, made extraordinary efforts to help Ayers. In the cruel crush of modern living, it’s easy to forget that some people do care about others, and this book serves as a worthwhile reminder of that fact

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Read from March 05 to 15, 2012

Three Stars

For the most part, book blurbs are bunk, but Stephen King is the exception. Here’s what he had to say about The Shadow of the Wind: “Shadow is the real deal, a novel full of cheesy splendor and creaking trapdoors, a novel where even the subplots have subplots.” That was enough to persuade me to open this book, and I was not disappointed. It’s set in post-war Barcelona, and the story begins with a setup that any true bookworm would find compelling. Young Daniel Sempere is taken by his widowed bookseller father to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, an enormous building full of packed bookshelves that house single copies of books that might otherwise be lost. The boy is charged with selecting one book that he will responsible for protecting, and he chooses The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. The book captivates the boy, who searches out every title he can find by Carax, a task that proves difficult because someone is systematically searching out and destroying all of Carax’s book. As Daniel grows up, he learns more about the mysterious author and in his search meets a variety of interesting people with connections to Carax. The story flashes back from the 1950s Spain of Franco to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, threading the political, economic and literary history of Spain through the story of Daniel’s quest for answers to the secrets of Carax’s life and his own. Zafon’s novel includes several truly memorable characters and vividly evokes Barcelona.