Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Montana Noir, edited by James Grady and Keir Graff

"Montana" and "Noir", at first glance, are two words that don't seem to go together.  "Noir" evokes mean urban streets and bleak endings, stories soaked in crime or twisted relationships. "Montana" often symbolizes natural beauty and small town values.  But as the editors of this collection note in their introduction, "living in beautiful places can be just as hard as living in the most soul-crushing cities."  This is the guiding idea behind their selections, which are grouped by geographic region throughout the state.

Crime plays a part in many, though not all, of the stories, but all are rooted in the sometimes harsh and lonely Montana landscape, its history and unique communities.  The best stories truly capture the flavor of their places and times.  In Caroline Patterson's "Constellations," for example, a young girl tastes bittersweet freedom while working as a page at the Constitutional Convention in 1972.  Gwen Florio depicts Missoula's seedier side and contrasts it with grad student culture for her tale of jealousy between old friends.  Other stories, such as Carrie La Seur's "Bad Blood" and Thomas McGuane's "Motherlode", make their hardboiled inspirations more explicit.  While the quality of the collection's stories is a bit uneven, I was able to recognize aspects of our state in each one.  For the non-Montanan, I expect that the final effect might  remind one of classic small-town noir movies like The Postman Always Rings Twice; for a resident, the vivid sense of place shadowed in darkness may hit a nerve.

This book is the newest addition to Akashic Book's long-running Noir series of short story collections.  Each volume features stories from a different region or city, and all are well worth checking out if you find yourself enjoying Montana Noir.   -Barb

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Thursday, September 7, 2017

Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone

The title is a bit misleading as these women didn’t rule, but they certainly influenced those who did. The four sisters – Marguerite, Eleanor, Sanchia and Beatrice – were the daughters of the Count of Provence, and grew up in a refined and cultured home. In the 13th century, Provence was an independent region, owing allegiance to the Holy Roman Empire, but right next to France. 

Through needs for funds, political alliances and strategic plotting, their daughters ended up marrying very well. Marguerite was married to King Louis IX of France, Eleanor to King Henry III of England, Sanchia to Henry’s brother Richard of Cornwall, who later became King of the Romans (essentially Germany) and Beatrice to Louis’ younger brother Charles, who later became King of Sicily.

The book alternates among the sisters, following the events of each life for a few chapters before moving on to the next. That being said, political machinations and in-fighting over finances and inheritances kept them involved with one another from time to time.

Marguerite’s husband was deeply pious (he was later canonized as St. Louis), and determined to go on a Crusade, taking Marguerite along. Unfortunately, his piety was not matched with military ability; the Crusade was a disaster. Marguerite had to ransom Louis out of captivity, after having just given birth in the desert. She spent her lifetime working to recoup their financial losses, and trying to keep her husband from enacting plans for another try.

Eleanor was married to another king who had big plans but not the military skills to pull them off. Henry wanted to reclaim the territory lost by his father, the infamous King John. Most of their story involves nepotism and favors, over-elaborate pageantry and Eleanor’s attempts to raise money for bribes and battles, all of which contributed to a civil war at home.

Some of those bribes went to his brother Richard, who ended up as the richest man in Europe. He was taken with Sanchia’s prettiness, but was indifferent to her personally. Sanchia was the least forceful of the sisters, and died young, so was a queen only briefly after Richard pursued his crown, partly out of spite for his brother.

Louis’ brother Charles married Beatrice to acquire Provence. The pair were both the youngest siblings in their families, and were desperately envious of their royal elders. Both consummate plotters, they schemed they way with the Pope and over the Alps to gain the Sicilian throne, along with good chunks of the Papal states as well.

This is a brisk, and frequently humorous, history that makes one wonder how royalty survived as long as it did. It was fascinating to see women taking strategic steps and maneuvers that influenced the world stage. These people are depicted as real and flawed and human, making choices that were good, bad, and horrible for reasons that were sometimes noble and sometimes greedy. I found it an engaging book and felt that it did a good job of juggling the four different narratives while still showing how each sister's decision impacted the others' lives.  -DeeAnn

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Friday, August 25, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

This captivating dystopian novel takes place in what was previously the United States, before its overthrow by a military, fundamentalist theocracy.  Under its totalitarian rule, human rights are severely curtailed and women are mere possessions.  No longer allowed to read, they are used primarily for housekeeping services and reproduction.

The story is told through the eyes of Offred, whose former life has been obliterated.  She and other "handmaids" no longer have even their own names.  They are known as being "of" the male commander they serve, so they become Ofglen, Ofwarren, etc.  Sex with the house commander is scheduled and required, to replenish a diminished population.

Especially noteworthy are Atwood's insights into behavior of the oppressed and their oppressors.  As time passes, some of the characters' memories of former freedoms fade as they more easily accept the restrictions imposed.  Atrocities become commonplace and are therefore condoned.  Most striking to me is the way commanders and those in authority bend rules for their own benefit and obtain forbidden merchandise.  Their rationalizations of these actions speak volumes, as we see evidence of similar attitudes by those in advantaged positions today.  Survival depends upon knowing whom to trust, or not, and power is all important, taken at the expense of those who don't have any.

Deftly constructed and thought-provoking, The Handmaid's Tale is a compelling read and would be an excellent selection for book-club discussions.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.  ~Margie

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

It’s 1992, when Sid, an aging man in a tired apartment in his native Baltimore, is contacted by his lifelong friend Chip. Chip is a respected jazz drummer and a fast talker who often has pushed Sid in directions he didn’t want to go. This time Chip wants him to go to Berlin, for the premiere of a documentary about their old bandmate, the legendary and long-lost genius Hieronymus Falk, known to Sid as just the Kid. 

Sid has no interest in reliving a painful past, but memories overwhelm him, reliving seeing the Kid hauled away by Nazis, never to play again. And then Chip tells him a devastating secret.

Now it’s Berlin in 1939. Sid is playing the bass next to Chip for The Swingers in Berlin. Bandmates Ernst, Fritz and Paul round out the group along with young trumpeter Hiero, whom Sid calls the Kid. Hiero is the oddest of an odd lot, a German citizen whose African father and dark skin mean his country is increasingly hostile to him. Indeed, it’s become hostile to jazz, too, as a “degenerate” form of music. Their home club, owned by Ernst, has been shut down, and they only go there to jam. That’s where they meet Delilah Browne, a vocalist sent to scout them out on behalf of Louis Armstrong, who might want to see them in Paris, if they can find a way to get there. And then things go wrong, badly. 

Edugyan has a gift for imagery and dialogue, particularly with the jazz patois used regularly between Chip and Sid. This historical novel won the Giller Prize and made the shortlist for the Booker Prize in 2011, and I can see why. The book is ultimately about friendship, trust, betrayal and the drive to make something beautiful in a time of ugliness.  -DeeAnn

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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

Grace Munroe is a vaguely unhappy young wife in 1950s London. She and her husband are increasingly distant, and he’s disappointed that she’s not using her aristocratic connections to greater effect in the elite social scene to help advance his career. One day, she receives a surprising letter from a Parisian lawyer – she’s the beneficiary of a legacy from a woman she’s never heard of before.

As her husband is on a business trip of his own, she leaves for Paris to investigate. Eva D’Orsey has left her the proceeds from the sale of her apartment and a healthy stock portfolio. But who was this woman? Grace is determined to find out, with a bit of assistance from her new French lawyer and a friend from London.

As she chases down whatever information she can find, we learn about Eva, a French schoolgirl who moved to New York in the 20s to live with an indifferent relative, who put her out to work as a hotel maid at fourteen. The hotel exposed to her to a variety of people who taught her about the world, sometimes for good, but ultimately leading Eva and her unusually canny memory to a loss of innocence. Eva embarks on a gambler’s life that eventually leads her to Paris, as muse to an extraordinarily talented perfumer.

Grace is fascinated by Eva’s story, and discovering another woman’s choices is forcing her to make one of her own, between the woman she is expected to be, and the woman she thinks she may wish to become.

Moving between 1920s New York, 1930s Monte Carlo, 1950s London, and Paris both occupied and post-war, the novel has a languid quality that I found enjoyable. The storyline was rather predictable, but there were some remarkable characters who behaved in interesting ways. The details about perfume makers was fascinating, and Tessaro’s descriptions of scents made them come alive. The noticeably poor copy-editing in this novel was a distraction that jarred frequently, though. Overall, fans of historical fiction will find much to like in The Perfume Collector.  -DeeAnn

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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

This is a strange and unusually effective first novel by short story specialist Saunders, whose most recent collection, 10th of December, was a finalist for the National Book Awards. The "Bardo" of the title is a Tibetan Buddhist term referring to a state of existence between death and rebirth, which can vary in length according to a person's conduct in life and manner of or age at death.*  The author uses this concept as his framework to tell a story about the tragic death of eleven-year-old Willie Lincoln and an imagined visit to the graveyard by Mr. Lincoln after the funeral.

Oak Hill Cemetery
Willie Lincoln died in February 1862 of typhoid fever, and was interred temporarily in a borrowed mausoleum at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown.  This is true;  it is also true that Lincoln is said to have visited the spot, sitting on a rocking chair outside the crypt and looking out over the nearby Rock Creek.  Saunders builds upon these facts in his phantasmagorical tale, surrounding the president and Willie with a community of the dead, who gather, unseen by the living, to greet the newly deceased boy.  These are the souls of people who cling to our world and their old lives, each for their own reasons, and who have a desperate need to tell their stories.  Willie's arrival and need for protection disrupts their routines, while the appearance of his distraught father ultimately leads to revelations and crises among them, both comic and emotionally moving.

I listened to the full-cast audio of this book, and though it was a bit difficult to follow at the beginning, it became apparent as it went on that this is the only possible way to perform the text.  The author uses a unique combination of historical and eyewitness accounts of events (not all of them factual) combined with vivid monologues from his various characters, giving the book a play-like, theatrical feel.  This structure lends itself the full-cast approach, which is beautifully performed by its many narrators including Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Saunders, Susan Sarandon, and Don Cheadle. Bill Hader and Megan Mullally stand out in the supporting cast as a pair of lowlife lovebirds.  I highly recommend this version, though I believe that either the recording or the print will offer you an unforgettable experience.  -Barb

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*Definition from English Oxford Living Dictionaries

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Pain Eater by Beth Goobie

Canadian author Beth Goobie wanted to become a writer since she was a young child. She didn’t start writing until her late twenties when she attended the University of Alberta. Since 1991, she has had 24 books published, all but four
were written for young adults. A number of her books explore difficult topics such as bullying, domestic violence, and sexual assault. Goobie’s latest novel, “The Pain Eater”, is a finalist in the young adult category of the High Plains Book Awards.

In “The Pain Eater”, author Beth Goobie provides a rape victim’s view of life after rape with main character Maddy Malone who was gang raped by three high school boys. Maddy comes face to face with one of her attackers in her sophomore English class where she is forced to work on a group project with one of the boys involved in the rape.

Maddy’s story unfolds along with a novel the sophomore English students are required to write as a class project. Maddie, like the “pain eater” which is the main character in the novel, internalizes her suffering and is unable to express her pain to others. While Maddy struggles to come to terms with her victimization, she remains silent in order to avoid reliving the trauma of being raped. She copes with her emotions by putting out cigarettes on her body and cutting herself with her fingernails.

This novel brings to life the horror of a rape victim’s struggle to report the crime and remaining silent to protect herself from reliving the terror. Goobie’s novel is well-written, relatable and realistically depicts of the pain and emotional turmoil of the young victim. --Jennifer

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