Monday, February 28, 2011


This one was given to me by one of my most trustworthy reader friends (i.e., I don't think he's ever passed me a dud), but he warned me that this is not a page-turner. And he's right. It's a book to relish rather than race through--in fact, I found myself turning back at times to reread pages. At points, I found it a bit "writerly," with its metaphors. But most of it is genius. The plot? A young Dutch man (de Zoet) is a clerk for the Dutch East Indes Co., in 1799 on Dejima, a small island in Nagasaki Harbor. He's betrothed to Anna (back in Holland), but falls in love with Orito Aibagawa, a midwife with a startling burn on her face. Then Orito is spirited off to a strange shrine where the women are "engifted" by monks, only to have their newborns vanish. I won't tell any more (that's enough of a spoiler). Although the main "action" takes place over only a year, the novel has the feel of an epic. And (perhaps not surprising, giving the time period) it felt to me to have many of the same themes as late-18th and 19th-century novels. Trollope comes to mind first, with his themes of corruption and honor, how everyone has a price, whether it's money (easy to refuse, though most characters in this novel don't) or a beloved friend's life (much harder). Also Dickens, with his consciousness about language and representation (especially during the scenes where Jacob has to translate words like "repercussions" and explain the criminal connotations of the phrase "in broad daylight"); and the depictions of how vilely cruel one person can be to another.

Perhaps the thing I loved most was the cast of characters beyond Jacob; they all had such distinct voices. Excerpts never quite do a novel justice, but here is Fiacre Muntervary, explaining how he became a thief and prisoner: "We pawned Da's tools, but soon enough me, ma, five sisters, an' one little brother, Padraig, were living in a crumbling barn, where Padraig caught a chill, an' that's one less mouth to feed. Back in the city I tried the docks, the breweries, I tried feckin' everything, but no luck. So back I went to the pawnbroker ... and he says '[Your father's tools're] sold, handsome, but it's winter an' folks need coats. I pay shiny shillings for good coats. You understand me?'" And here's Van Cleef, on how he ended up in bed with his aunt Gloria: "Oh, lawful wedlock, awful bedlock yes, yes, ... Batavia-born I was, but sent to Amsterdam to learn the gentlemanly arts: how to spout bastard Latin, how to dance like a peacock, and how to cheat at cards. ... My 'aunt Gloria' was four years my junior and one-third the age of her proud groom [my cruel uncle] ... Gloria, you must remember, had rarely gone beyond the Singel Canal. Java was as far off as the moon. Farther, in fact, for the moon is, at least, visible from Amsterdam."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Stacy Schiff, CLEOPATRA

This was another bookclub pick, and it seemed a sure thing. (As a side note, does anyone out there remember the movie The Sure Thing? I first saw it in college and caught part of it on TV the other night. Wow, Cusack was young back then. Oh yeah, so was I. Hm.)
Anyway, CLEOPATRA is everywhere. It's been on the bestseller list for weeks. It has received glowing reviews. Schiff is an acknowledged talent. So I was perplexed when everyone in my bookclub except for two hardy souls bailed on the book. Most gave it the required fifty-page try before pronouncing it "a slog," "unengaging," and "disappointing." Then, while traveling recently, I saw a friend who belongs to two bookclubs in the midwest. She said that with only one exception, everyone in both clubs had disliked it and failed to finish it.
So I sat down to study the book, curious to find out why it didn't seem to engage this disparate group of readers (most of whom are pretty omnivorous).
I think part of the problem is that--as with a trailer that doesn't quite match the movie--we have a certain set of expectations when we open a book called CLEOPATRA, as opposed to a book called, say, TAXATION IN THE 1960S. The book cover is marvelous, exotic, coy--the model's shoulders are draped in vibrant red that shades to rich purple; her hair is tidily pinned, but tendrils escape; her face, turned away, is barely visible but beautiful all the same. We've all read the myths and stories about Cleopatra. They're sensational, larger than life, intriguing. And perhaps unconsciously, we approach this book expecting to be intrigued, engaged, passionately interested from the first page.
But this book lacks two of the ingredients that tend to draw readers in: dialog and scenes. For example, at one point early on, Schiff describes Cleopatra's education: "Aeschylus and Sophocles, Hesiod, Pindar, and Sappho, would all have been familiar to Cleopatra and the clique of well-born girls at her side. As much for her as for Caesar, there was little regard for what was not Greek. She probably learned even her Egyptian history from three Greek texts. Some schooling in arithmetic, geometry, music, and astrology and astronomy ... She read aloud or was read to by teachers or servants." I'm not saying this sort of synopsis is a flaw. But I think most readers would be more engaged by a scene showing Cleopatra with her tutor.
So then I wondered if Schiff was reluctant to perform this smudging of the line between biography and historical fiction. I love historical fiction. I willingly--no gladly!--suspend my disbelief. I'm thinking of the works of, say, Jeff Shaara, in which he imagines the arguments between Eisenhower and Patton, for example. I don't believe for a minute that Shaara is accurately representing the words that were said between the two men (or that he expects us to think he is). But I'm thoroughly sucked in. And consider UNBROKEN. For all the accomplished research, the book is a page-turner because we are provided harrowing scenes, with dialog (accurate or not--and let's not even get into the problems of translating the Japanese to English). In striving to win readers to their version of the "truth," these writers (Shaara and Hillenbrand) could be said to sacrifice "accuracy." And if Schiff wants to stay closer to biography than historical fiction, so be it. But then a friend told me that she was listening to NPR and Schiff described the work as historical fiction. (I confess I haven't looked up that NPR string.)
Schiff's scholarship is ambitious and thorough. I'd say that a successful read of this book may simply require managing expectations. That said, I'd be interested in another book about Cleopatra. If anyone out there knows of a good one, please comment.


This was a bookclub pick. I cannot say I enjoyed it very much. (Spoiler alert.) The plot hangs on an unlikely device: two girls are switched at the hospital just after birth. And it just so happens that the two girls, who were born on the same day, have a father in common! This man (he cheated on his wife one night in the middle of a storm) says nothing to fix the mistake. In fact, when his wife mentions her concerns, he stonewalls her.
The book is told from the two girls' perspectives, in alternating chapters. (We're seeing a lot of this in novels of the last few years; when done well, as in Little Bee or The Postmistress, it makes for an interesting read.) The problem is that in this book, the girls' voices are virtually indistingishable from each other. However, their appearances are not--so much so that the reader catches on to the fact that the daughters have been switched someplace before the middle of the book. How is it that most of the characters fail to notice that one girl is short and sort of dumpy and dark and likes plants (like all the girls in the farmer's family) and one girl is tall and blonde and beautiful and loves to draw (like the artistic mother in the other family)? The "good daughters" metaphor is forced to work hard ... toward the end, we're told that strawberry plants create daughters who are exact replicas of their parents.
I think this book will appeal to those who like Jodi Picoult's work (especially My Sister's Keeper). But it had too much melodrama for me.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


A fun read. Short, lively stories (5-10 pp.) about a young man's adventures over the course of several years. Getting lost on a river with two friends, a first aid kit and some ramen noodles. Nearly being drowned. Being chased by a lion. Overrun with mice. Infatuated with birds. Tipped badly. Tipped well. You get the idea.