In the High Peaks

Monday, July 28, 2014

Updated: Once Again, The Lie by Helen Dunmore

I'm writing about The Lie once again this year because it was Caroline's July choice for her Literature and War Readalong at her blog Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. My previous thoughts are included in my April post regarding The Lie.  I must say that I didn't say much about it at that time.

A spoiler alert!!! 
I will say that I so appreciated Dunmore's empathy and her considerable sympathy for the war-damaged protagonist. I so understood his withdrawal from the thrum of village life and his withdrawal to the far outskirts of the local community. His care and solicitude for his elderly neighbor are a sign of his healing from the trench warfare's irreparable damage to his psyche. But when he reconnects with Felicia, the sister of his long-time buddy Frederick, who was killed in battle, the two wounded survivors appear to find a way around their awkwardness, the horrible war years past, and Frederick's death. They commence the beginnings of a new life and make plans for the future. Despite the threats coming from the village, they manage to plan an escape route. Why Dunmore didn't allow this plan to follow through, I'll never know. Yes, there were plenty of suicides of soldier survivors, but the hope building in these two damaged people's relationship seemed stronger. I mourn the author's decision in this one.

I will say that Caroline's review is exquisite, so don't miss it.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Chris Bohjalian's New Novel

Bohjalian's Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, released this summer, was a novel that might have been classified YA, though I can see why it was marketed to adult audiences. When I picked it up and dove into the first chapters, I realized that it's possible that Bohjalian might have been aiming for the YA market. Emily is 16, the only child of two alcoholic parents, living in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, very close to Lake Memphremagog, which is also the site of a nuclear power plant. The power plant, which dominates the region, is the reason Emily's family is in northern Vermont. Her father is a nuclear engineer and her mother the communications director of the plant.

After weeks of rain, and subsequent flooding, the plant morphs into meltdown mode quickly, in a matter of hours. Emily is evacuated with her fellow high school students to the south. When she can't contact her parents by cell, she panics and runs away to the northwest of Vermont, to its largest city, Burlington. Emily's life is soon fraught with her decision to survive on the street, back alleys, and hidden alcoves of the city. She takes on a new name, to hide the fact that she is the daughter of the man who is the main character blamed for the meltdown.

Despite Emily's life with people who are usually called "the dregs of society," she remains hopeful, helpful to friends when she can, and rescues and becomes the protector of a nine-year-old runaway.

Perhaps this novel is not among the best of Bohjalian's ouevre (partly due to his lack of certainty with Emily's voice), but I liked and became instantly attached to Emily in spite of this, particularly her refusal to let life kick her down and her eternal optimism and poetic vision, based on her deep connection to Emily Dickinson.

I heartily recommend Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. I happen to be a fan of American novels that focus on life after nuclear meltdowns, and this is one is very worthwhile. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bittersweet: An Unbeatable Summer Escape

Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore is a heart-stopping novel of gothic suspense, filled with romance, horrific family secrets, and inscrutable characters who commit the darkest crimes imaginable in the present and the past.

When Midwesterner Mabel Dagmar’s famously wealthy college roommate Ginevra Winslow beckons Mabel to spend the summer at Winloch, the Winslow Family’s vacation paradise on the Vermont shores of Lake Champlain, Mabel is stunned but thrilled. She didn’t know that Ginevra even liked her, let alone would consider spending the summer with a scholarship student whose parents own a laundry in Wisconsin.

When the two young women arrive at Winloch, Ginevra immediately sets them both to work scrubbing and fixing up Bittersweet, one of many family cottages at Winloch, which Ginevra hopes will be hers. Mabel is no fool—she now sees at least one reason Ginevra invited her to Winloch. But Mabel doesn’t care. If there’s a price for a summer at Winloch, she’s more than willing to pay it.

While Ginevra is off pursuing a pair of romantic entanglements, Mabel is left to wander the estate. She meets Indo, Ginevra’s eccentric aunt. One afternoon together is all it takes for Indo and Mabel to bond, and for Indo to trust her niece’s friend with an investigation into a family secret that threatens Indo’s future. Mabel, a researcher and detective by nature, is eager to search in an attic for the folder Indo says will provide the crucial proof she needs.

In the midst of her pursuit, Mabel is soon swept off her feet by the “black sheep” of Ginevra’s siblings, Galway, who refuses to sit back on his family’s wealth. He runs  a non-profit to aid immigrants in Boston. While assisting Mabel with her search in the attic, they find they have much in common and the couple fall in love on a star-filled night swimming in Lake Champlain.

At the center of the Winloch mystery is a Van Gogh painting hung in Ginevra’s parents’ house. When Indo claims that the painting is actually hers, Mabel becomes more deeply involved in uncovering the truth of the painting’s history and the Winslow Family’s relationship with it. She discovers that what appears on the surface to be an ordinary family of privilege is actually a group concealing a rat’s nest filled with the darkest unspoken secrets both in the present and the past.  Over the course of the summer, Mabel evolves from a bright, innocent college girl into a worldly-wise young woman of power and conviction who unflinchingly battles with the evil in her midst.

 If you’re a reader who’s attracted to elegantly depicted setting, including mood and atmosphere, then the author’s flawless creation of Winloch and the Lake Champlain landscape, complete with woodlands, fields, rocky shores, sandy beaches, and beautiful family compound will satisfy your vacation dreams. I know it did mine!


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Smothered by My Smorgasbord of Books

On Monday, I started reading one of my BIG summer reads, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. The weather was hot and ultra-humid with dewpoints in the low seventies. I know it could be worse, but all I'm capable of doing in such weather is reading. And I'll say I was fully absorbed in my reading of the first 50 pages, but I will say I needed to have my wits about me. (My brain becomes water-logged on hot, humid days.)

As mentioned in previous posts, I'm really enjoying Chris Bohjalian's Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands. (See a previous recent entry.)  And I also happen to be reading Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, a "summer vacation" novel that is about two college roommates, one from a very wealthy New England family and one from a working-class family in Oregon. Although the basics of the plot are hardly new, the two young women travel to Ginevra's family compound on the Vermont shores of Lake Champlain. Although I'm a third of the way through the novel, I was surprised to discover online tonight that this novel has gothic leanings. All the better, I guess. At least that element will help distinguish the plot from many other novels depicting poor girl-wealthy girl summers at the wealthy girl's estate. I'm reading this to write a review of it, and I am indeed enjoying it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Alena by Rachel Pastan: A Departure from Rebecca

I purchased Alena by Rachel Pastan in late January or February primarily for its setting on a place beloved to me, Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Not all of Alena takes place there--there's the Midwestern art museum setting, New York City, and please don't forget Venice! But most of the action takes place in and around an extraordinary art museum on the dunes overlooking the ocean near Wellfleet and Truro.

And as I may have told you, and as you may have heard, Pastan models the broad outline of Alena on Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca. The relationships among the main characters resemble those in Rebecca, but the young female narrator is nowhere near as naïve or as inexperienced as the one in Rebecca. And, to mark this novel as a departure, is the universe of contemporary art. Pastan's characters have a lot to say about it, and it is enough to hoist Alena off the Rebecca climbing wall.

I was dubious about reading a novel even remotely based on Rebecca, but I must emphasize that I enjoyed the ride. The so-called naïf is extremely observant and wise enough to detect what's happening around her. I liked her a great deal and sympathized with her. Bernard is her mentor, her Laurence Olivier character, but because he's a homosexual, their intimate friendship is based on a deep fondness and a mutual love of art, which is so refreshing. You may wish to read the Washington Post review.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Summer House with Swimming Pool: Thoughts and Questions

I would never discourage anyone from reading this book. Even though I thought The Dinner had more to say to me about  life (whatever that is), and although it was a cutting-edge allegory of Europe since World War II (yes, of course, I’m crazy!), Summer House with Swimming Pool is, all in all, for better or worse, impossible to forget and encompasses much, much more than what appears on the slippery surface of the “family” story he tells.

After all, what are we to make of Marc Schlosser, the physician-narrator? He is more than a little abnormal from page one. Most people who become family doctors, internists, or general practioners—whatever one calls them—have significant defenses built up to protect their psyches from being grossed out by every single incident that occurs with medical contact with the human body, whether in health, detritus, or decay. Not Marc Schlosser. He is creeped out by nearly everything about the serious business of medicine. I found him to be ghoulishly repulsive in this regard. And I thought that Koch intends us to be repulsed, and to imagine our naked selves unclad on Schlosser’s examining-room table. Horrid!

What is Schlosser seeking when he insinuates his entire family into Ralph's (the great actor and movie star mogul) Mediterranean rental commune? Is it to brush shoulders with Ralph’s fame? To see if he can find a way to imbibe Ralph’s incessant breaking of boundaries to recharge his (Schlossser’s) own life and thus compensate for the daily suppression of self he suffers in his medical practice? What??? I think Koch begs the reader to find an explanation for Schlosser’s lunacy, or at the least, his off-balance intentions.

The crux of the novel, as it impends on the climax, focuses on a murky mishap that involves or befalls Schlosser’s gorgeous 13-year-old daughter Julia. Did Ralph really rape Julia, as Schlosser is convinced? Or is Schlosser merely projecting his incestual predilictions onto Ralph? What do you think?
How are we to view Schlosser's grotesque assault on Ralph's body in Schlosser's examining room? Is this a mere novel of horror? I ask you.

And what are we to make of Schlosser’s neon flashback to the anti-homosexual lectures/rants of his medical school professor, which was for Schlosser, an indoctrination into what was, for him, the horrors of anal penetration?

In my review of The Dinner, I stated my convinction that it was, among other things, an allegory. I suspect that Summer House with Swimming Pool may be also—there’s just too much social commentary for it not to be, to my mind. So what’s my problem? I don’t have a clue what Koch is trying to say. Do you? Koch is definitely saying something in this novel. What are your views? Please share them openly!


Saturday, July 5, 2014

Too Many New Books to Read This Summer!

About Alena by Rachel Pastan, which I blogged about yesterday. After page 45, I put two or three thumbs up! What a novel to decompress the over-taxed brain. I guess I'd say I'm loving it. The Rebecca thing bothered me for only the first 40 pages; now I'm completely over it and am thrilled for the ride! Now onto other matters:

I have two full months before the fall semester begins. I'm determined to make the most of the time and do a great deal of reading in addition to all of my other activities. As I've mentioned before Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, Mantel's Wolf Hall, and Orhan Pamuk's Snow will be consumed come hook or by crook. They are my priorities.

Yet, loads of new books are demanding my attention. You know how it goes. To rest my mind at the pool, I've ordered C is for Corpse by Sue Grafton. I do love Kinsey Milhone's gutsiness and her lackadaisical care for her personal appearance. If her hair gets washed, fine; if it doesn't, then that's okay, too. There are more pressing worries in this world.  I've ordered it for my Kindle, which I only tend to use in the summer, because I can read it in the sunshine unlike the Nook.

Then Chris Bohjalian has a new novel, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands--a post-apocalyptic sort of novel about a teenage runaway trying desperately to survive after a nuclear disaster in Vermont, which is to be released next Tuesday, July 8. I'm almost sorry to say I have a predilection for post-apocalyptic fiction. Not everyone's taste, I'm sure, but I'm drawn to it like a moth to a flame. I've lived most of my life in the scary "downwind" perimeters of nuclear power plants and have always protested the use of nuclear power. Not to mention the fact that the Seabrook, New Hampshire and Vermont Yankee power plants are notorious for being old and having less than the best designs and engineering. Seabrook is offline now, though Vermont Yankee in the western part of the state is still! operating, forty-three years, long past its sell-by date, and is all too close to us here in northeastern New York.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Grasping Freedom with Rachel Pastan's Alena and The Vacationers

Because I am finally, at long last, done with final papers and projects and grading, as of tonight I feel the freedom of leisure approaching.

Yesterday, when I discovered that large sections of two out of twenty final papers had been plagiarized, I threw in the towel and immediately zoomed to my local swimming pool where I swam laps like a crazed beast until exhaustion took over. I then sat, dripping wet, and turned to the first few pages of Wolf Hall and immediately realized that the novel is much too complex for my frazzled brain to handle at this point. Frustrating!

This morning I felt the need for a leisurely hour of reading before I finished my course work, so I turned to Alena by Rachel Pastan, a novel I purchased for the Nook when it was first published earlier this year. It's had some excellent reviews, but I must warn you that it is a contemporary, re-structured version of Du Maurier's Rebecca. Ordinarily, a book that's a knock-off of a classic would not interest me in the slightest. But I chose this one because it takes off, literally, from Rebecca, with surprises of its own, and also because it's set on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, a place where I spent a great deal of time in my youth and young adulthood. My longing to spend time there may be what motivated me to purchase this book. Maybe this novel will rest my brain so I can turn to the more serious, challenging reading I have planned for July and August. So I hope!

Just a few minutes ago I also purchased The Vacationers by Emma Straub, which has received rave reviews. I'm looking forward to this novel as well. So here's my self-medicated prescription: Stick to non-taxing reading for my befuddled brain, and then, when it has healed, onto Wolf Hall! I can't wait to read it, which is why my mental incapacity is extremely frustrating at the moment.