The Essex Serpent

The Essex SerpentThe Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Part mystery, part romance, part psychological sort-of gothic, this is a historical novel with a strong and compelling female main character. Literate and atmospheric, I enjoyed this very much. It is a study in contrasts: science vs. religion/superstition, feminism vs. the typical Victorian view of women, illusion/ambiguity/chaos vs. order, city vs. rural, poverty vs. wealth, etc. The themes are timeless, the relationships (like real life) can’t always be black and white. And the serpent has so many possible interpretations: the Biblical serpent of Adam and Eve, the serpent of Asclepias, the serpent can represent temptation and the devil, and it can also be a symbol of rebirth and renewal. It is tempting to say the serpent represents the Kundalini, vital energy that seeks to balance the masculine and feminine within us, intellect and emotion, and our conscious vs. unconscious selves. This is a rich and multilayered story that invites rereading.

Description: When Cora Seaborne’s brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one. Wed at nineteen, this woman of exceptional intelligence and curiosity was ill-suited for the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space in the wake of the funeral, Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year old son, Francis, and the boy’s nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend. While admiring the sites, Cora learns of an intriguing rumor that has arisen further up the estuary, of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have returned, taking the life of a young man on New Year’s Eve. A keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, Cora is immediately enthralled, and certain that what the local people think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to local vicar William Ransome. Will, too, is suspicious of the rumors. But unlike Cora, this man of faith is convinced the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief. These seeming opposites who agree on nothing soon find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart—an intense relationship that will change both of their lives in ways entirely unexpected.

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The Destiny Waltz

The Destiny WaltzThe Destiny Waltz by Gerda Charles

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have made it halfway through this book, and I just can’t go any farther. I’m giving it two stars, because there was enough there to keep me going for over 200 pages, but I’m just not getting any more out of it. It is exceedingly slow and introspective. The characters are, yes, self-conscious to a fault, anxious, defensive, and obviously don’t have a clue what happiness is. The convoluted dialogue is hard for me to imagine anyone actually participating in. I realize this was written in the late 1960s but it felt so much older. I don’t know what else was published in Britain in 1970, but seriously? this is the winner of the first Whitbread award?

KIRKUS REVIEW (Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1972):
Although this is basically a sentimental book (the title referring to the theme song of one of its two central characters — a former band leader — indicates that), it hasn’t the appeal of her Logical Girl (1967) and it is more consistent with her earlier work which offered a substantial sociology of Anglo-Jewry. Throughout the first half of this book, ostensibly dealing with the making of a documentary by four or five people, Gerda Charles examines the soul of the Jew always suffering from his Jewishness without even the “”protection of stupidity””; always worrying his way, self-consciously but ambitiously, out of his “”small”” world of the People of the Book at a time, 50 years before this, when in their crass ignorance they were not even “”People of the Word.”” This is the past inherited by the Jewish poet, minor, ingrown and consumptive, who will be the subject of the documentary; but it also imposes its allegiances on Michele, a writer and a teacher and a Rabbi’s daughter, and Jimmy Marchant, the band leader, who have never found personal happiness. Less susceptible to it is Georges Franck, director of the documentary — a charmer, a betrayer who finally will hurt everyone in connection with this project but still will enable Michele and Marchant to find some sort of compromise together for their half-lives. . . . The novel moves very slowly since the author is far more interested in permitting her characters to assess themselves and each other — it is sometimes talky but not preachy. At one point she questions whether life should take precedence over art — in this case it is life, and Gerda Charles, with her very level intelligence and practical realism, deals with it on just those terms.

The Goldfinch

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is not really a very “likeable” book, but it is a very powerful one. Basic plot: boy loses mother, is cast adrift, descends into drug use and alcoholism, makes choices that spiral out of control, and eventually grows up and tries to put things right. One of those choices was stealing a valuable painting from the MOMA during a terrorist bombing that kills his mother. He clings to this painting as a sort of anchor in his life, and it is his undoing, but in the end, it is also his salvation. Tedious in some sections, especially life with his until then absent father in Las Vegas, and his descent into drug abuse with his friend Boris — and Theo is not really a very likeable character himself — nevertheless, it was also mesmerizing. The painting is a character in its own right – perhaps the only character that I actually cared about. The power of this book is in the broader themes that transcend plot and characters: how much do we control our fate? what is the power of art? the nature of authenticity? what happens when we try to follow our heart, but our heart cannot be trusted? Dickensian in scope, there is more than a nod here to Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. Will all be well in the end? Maybe, and maybe not.

Book Description: Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his longing for his mother, he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art. As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love–and his talisman, the painting, places him at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

Cutting for Stone

Cutting for StoneCutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A very complex and detailed drama about the breaking and healing of family relationships. Exotic setting, mostly in a mission hospital in Ethiopia, and a range of interesting characters. Clearly autobiographical in many respects, and told with polished prose. But what is wonderful about this book is also its downfall – too much detail, especially about every medical procedure. The narrative was interrupted time and again to digress into the back story of one character or another. And yet it could have used more back story on the political events in Ethiopia and the Eritrean rebels. One character that seemed surprisingly shadowy – Marion’s twin, Shiva. The twin connection just seemed to be missing for me. The book could have been cut by 200-300 pages. By the time we got to the conclusion, it seemed to have run out of steam and didn’t have the impact it could have. Despite the flaws it is a wonderful book, well worth the time spent reading it, and one that I will remember for a long time. Just be prepared for a very meandering and detailed journey.

Book Description: Marion and Shiva Stone are twin brothers born of a secret union between a beautiful Indian nun and a brash British surgeon. Orphaned by their mother’s death and their father’s disappearance, bound together by a preternatural connection and a shared fascination with medicine, the twins come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution. Moving from Addis Ababa to New York City and back again, Cutting for Stone is an unforgettable story of love and betrayal, medicine and ordinary miracles–and two brothers whose fates are forever intertwined.

The Crane Wife

The Crane WifeThe Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An interesting blend of contemporary story about a man having a mid-life crisis, his socially inept single mother daughter, and the fairy-tale, mystical woman who comes into their lives offering love? forgiveness? redemption? It is also a philosophical look at storytelling and the nature of truth vs. myth. Lots of gorgeous prose and quotable lines. A strong beginning, but then a tendency to lose itself in the shifting points of view and time. The mystical and the real didn’t always intersect very smoothly, and the ending is hopeful but not necessarily convincing.

First line: “What actually woke him was the unearthly sound itself — a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to earth to pierce his heart and lodge there forever, never to move, never to melt — but he, being who he was, assumed it was his bladder.”

Book Description: George Duncan is an American living and working in London. At forty-eight, he owns a small print shop, is divorced, and lonelier than he realizes. All of the women with whom he has relationships eventually leave him for being too nice. But one night he is woken by an astonishing sound—a terrific keening, which is coming from somewhere in his garden. When he investigates he finds a great white crane, a bird taller than even himself. It has been shot through the wing with an arrow. Moved more than he can say, George struggles to take out the arrow from the bird’s wing, saving its life before it flies away into the night sky.

The next morning, a shaken George tries to go about his daily life, retreating to the back of his store and making cuttings from discarded books—a harmless, personal hobby—when through the front door of the shop a woman walks in. Her name is Kumiko, and she asks George to help her with her own artwork. George is dumbstruck by her beauty and her enigmatic nature, and begins to fall desperately in love with her. She seems to hold the potential to change his entire life, if he could only get her to reveal the secret of who she is and why she has brought her artwork to him.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

The Story of Edgar SawtelleThe Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I don’t quite know what to make of this book. It has some nice literary prose. The author can certainly paint pictures with words. But plotwise I thought it was tedious in the extreme. For a book that is supposed to be a retelling of Hamlet, it had nothing of Shakespeare’s eloquent examination of what it means to be human. Too much was said in the way of endless details about dog training, and sign language, and what Edgar stole when he was surviving in the woods, and how he chose names for the dogs, but too little was said about what drove the characters to do what they did. And after paralleling Shakespeare for the first two thirds of the book, it kind of fell apart at the end. Retellings of classics should, in my mind, provide insights into the original story. This just wrapped it up in so much murkiness I really could not discern the point behind the story.

Book description: Born mute, speaking only in sign, Edgar Sawtelle leads an idyllic life with his parents on their farm in remote northern Wisconsin. For generations, the Sawtelles have raised and trained a fictional breed of dog whose thoughtful companionship is epitomized by Almondine, Edgar’s lifelong friend and ally. But with the unexpected return of Claude, Edgar’s paternal uncle, turmoil consumes the Sawtelles’ once peaceful home. When Edgar’s father dies suddenly, Claude insinuates himself into the life of the farm–and into Edgar’s mother’s affections.

Grief-stricken and bewildered, Edgar tries to prove Claude played a role in his father’s death, but his plan backfires–spectacularly. Forced to flee into the vast wilderness lying beyond the farm, Edgar comes of age in the wild, fighting for his survival and that of the three yearling dogs who follow him. But his need to face his father’s murderer and his devotion to the Sawtelle dogs turn Edgar ever homeward.

Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful RuinsBeautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An overly clever pastiche with an ensemble of mostly unlikeable characters. The main storyline involving the almost-romance between Pasquale and Dee is sweet. Most of the characters border on caricatures. Some of the writing is quite lovely, and it does have its humorous moments. We go back and forth between the 1960’s and the present day, following a variety of people. How they all relate to each other doesn’t come together until the end of the book. Then throw in some chapters like the first chapter of one character’s unfinished war novel, another character’s movie pitch about the Donner Party, or the first chapter of the movie producer’s autobiography. A little pretentious, but it sort of works. Woven throughout is the theme of looking for happiness by following your desires, no matter how ruinous or self-destructive those desires might be. Pasquale and Dee make a different choice – to do the right thing instead of what they think will bring them happiness. I think a second theme might be the hunger that we all have to create something that will outlive ourselves. Hence the Donner Party with its images of cannibalism, one character’s obsession with anorexia, various forms of artistic expression – wartime artwork in a cave, movies, plays and music – keeping dreams alive (extreme plastic surgery?), and sublimating the loss of those dreams through alcohol, drug abuse, and pornography. It’s a book that makes for interesting discussion. Of course, I enjoyed Richard Burton as a character and I now have to watch the movie Cleopatra.

Book Description: The story begins in 1962. On the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies a tall, thin woman approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, an American starlet, and she is dying. And the story begins again today when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio’s back lot, searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.