Victoria Jelinek


The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

indexIn 1708, a fleet of French and Scottish soldiers almost succeeded in landing the exiled Stuart prince in Scotland to reclaim his crown. In the present day, author Carrie McClelland wants to turn this story into her next bestselling novel. Settling into the shadows of an ancient castle in the highlands of Scotland, she creates a heroine named after one of her own Scottish ancestors, and begins to write the tale. Soon after, she finds that the details she’s including in the book are more fact than fiction, and she ponders whether she’s dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only person alive who knows the truth about what happened over 300 years ago.

I was skeptical about reading what looked like a tome of historical fiction, but my doubt was quickly allayed. The concept is great – a writer has characters and their actions, circumstances, and dialogues, coming to her as memories, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. The locale is vividly, but not overly described. The characters – both in the present day and during the 18th century – are compelling. The story is suspenseful (and there’s a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming). Finally, I learned a great deal about the Jacobites, the feuds between Scotland and England, and the alliance between France and Scotland, which is immensely interesting and explains a lot about the social politics between these three (Scotland, England, France) countries today.

 

 

 



Plainsong by Kent Haruf

shoppingA small town community in the ‘heartlands’ of the USA is the setting for Plainsong and its rendering of the quintessentially American experience. Kent Haruf interweaves the stories of a lonely teacher, a pair of boys abandoned by their mother, a pregnant high school girl, and a couple of brittle old bachelor farmers as they undergo radical changes over the course of a year. With lyrical, eloquent prose that is richly nuanced, Haruf presents the steadfast courage of decent, troubled people getting on with their lives.

Weather and landscape set the quiet, observant mood of the narrative, while descriptions of rural existence are poetic invocations to the natural world. Haruf steers clear of sentimentality and melodrama, however. His beautifully imagined characters and the vivid depictions of their experiences, makes each of them seem non-fiction, which can evoke both heart-warming and heart-wrenching feelings (respectively) in the reader. Emotions that resonate long after one finishes the novel. This is a contemplative and compelling story about grief, loss, loneliness, and frustration, as well as kindness, love, benevolence, beauty, and what it means to be a family.



Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

indexThe concept of Frankenstein has invaded popular culture to the extent that even those that have never read the book have a vague sense of what it’s about – “a mad scientist who creates a monster!” This is essentially true, and given the multitudes of adaptations to film and TV, I, too, previously defined it thus. But it’s so much more. Frankenstein is about love, loss, identity, anger, betrayal, beauty, and ugliness. It is also very sad. There was a point when I thought I couldn’t continue reading it, but because it’s so beautifully written and so subtle in its complexity, I continued.

The novel begins with explorer Robert Walton searching for a new passage from Russia to the Pacific Ocean via the Arctic Ocean. After some time at sea, with their boat stuck in ice, the crew and Walton find Victor Frankenstein floating on an ice flow very near to death, and bring him aboard. Walton re tells the tragic story of Victor Frankenstein through a series of letters to his sister in England. Victor was a precocious child who grew up on the shores of Geneva in a wealthy and loving family. He leaves home for university, where he studies physical science and greatly impresses his fellow students and professors by his genius. Spurred on by ambition, Victor uses a combination of chemistry, alchemy, and electricity to create and re animate a dead body. Once the creature comes to life, Victor is overcome by guilt and runs away in fear and disgust. The monster wanders the countryside, repudiated and despised by all who see him. He eventually teaches himself to read and to understand language. One day, he discovers a notebook and letters that were lost by Victor. From these notes, the monster learns of his creation and decides to take revenge on his creator as a salve for the injury and sorrow that he has endured in isolation. His vengeance is horrible. Yet through a conversation with Victor in which the monster relates how his life has been and in which he appeals to him to make him a mate (which Victor refuses), one almost forgives the sorrow that he causes.

As the daughter of philosophers and advocates for women’s rights, Mary Shelley would have been exposed to sociological discussion throughout her life. When she wrote Frankenstein, the French Revolution had just ended and Europe was afraid that its ideas of liberty and equality might spread. Industrialization was just beginning, which would bring an end to the landed class and see a rise of the middle class. Alchemy and superstition had been discredited in favor of hard sciences. Shelley manifests these cultural events through the themes and motifs of Frankenstein: she is concerned with the invasion of technology into modern life; how knowledge and science is used for good or for evil purposes; the overwhelming power of nature, as well as its curative power; and the treatment of the poor or uneducated. At its heart, Shelley asks the reader to consider how we can control the knowledge we have so that it’s for the benefit of all of mankind. How far should advances in science and technology push the individual in terms of personal and spiritual growth? When does man become a slave to his machines? What constitutes a “good” life? Who is responsible for the most vulnerable in society? Provocative questions about the human condition posed almost 200 years ago that remain relevant today.

 



Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in their home in an attack dubbed by the press as “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” Libby and her then fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, survived, and it was Libby’s testimony that sent Ben to jail on a life sentence for the monstrous murders.

41x9l+9rpDL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_As a youngster, Libby received a lot of money from strangers for having survived her ordeal (and for being cute). Twenty-five-years later, she’s broke, and hasn’t done anything with her life except grow angrier and more depressed. Then the Kill Club locates her. They’re a secret society obsessed with notorious murders, and they want to pump Libby for details because they believe Ben was wrongly convicted and want to find proof that will liberate him. In turn, Libby hopes to make a profit off of her tragic history. For a fee, she’ll reconnect with people associated with that night and her family at that time, and report her findings back to the club. When Libby begins this journey, she’s convinced her brother is guilty. But as her search takes her from decrepit Missouri strip clubs, to deserted Oklahoma tourist towns, and back to the site of the fatal killings, the inconceivable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself back where she started – running from a murderer.

The novel is a complex character study and an evocative portrait of people on the fringe of society. Told in sporadic flashback, Libby narrates the present-day chapters in first person, while the flashback chapters are told in third-person, describing the actions and perspectives of several key characters on the days leading up to, and on the day that, the family was murdered. Libby is not a particularly likeable protagonist – she’s bitter, tough, and selfish. Even so, you root for her, and you’re sad about her horrifying childhood. Similarly, Ben isn’t particularly appealing – he’s awkward, shiftless, impressionable, and irrational. Like Libby, you feel immense sympathy for him. Each of the characters in the book are compelling, even if they’re not agreeable, and Flynn expertly weaves their stories together. The narrative is consistently developed, compelling, and absolutely suspenseful throughout (I had to resist reading the last chapters to find out how it ended!). The best aspect of this book, however, is in Flynn’s ability to create a vivid picture or a situation in a phrase or two, giving the reader a believable glimpse into a world we might never see otherwise.

This is an insightful, poignant, and well-written book. Its ability to affect its reader is also impressive. I was troubled for several days after finishing it – I found myself checking on my sleeping child in the night, hugging him more during the day, and double-checking that the front and back doors were locked when I went to bed. Would I read it again? Not for some years. Do I recommend reading it? An emphatic yes!

 

 

 

 



The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage

Book of DustMany years ago, I remember working at a film school and talking to a colleague about the wonderful J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. My then-colleague said, “You’ve not read Philip Pullman, then, have you?” I hadn’t. Later that day, I found my way to a bookstore and bought the His Dark Materials trilogy (written by Pullman) and gulped them down. Once read, I realized there was no comparison: His Dark Materials is, in my opinion (as well as my respected colleague’s), the better series. It’s complex and imaginative as it combines magical creatures and alternative worlds in an uncompromising story about religion, authority, and individual freedom. Topical themes in any age, really.

It has been nearly two decades since Philip Pullman completed his renowned trilogy. In its first installment, The Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass, depending on where you’re geographically located in the world), he introduces readers to Lyra Belacqua, a girl from a parallel world, who sets off on an epic mission to rescue a missing friend. In the His Dark Materials trilogy, Pullman depicts a world ruled by an oppressive church, known as the Magisterium, that dictates the rules and mores of society. The worlds created in both His Dark Materials and his latest series, The Book of Dust, are almost like our own world, but just slightly changed. A primary difference is that every human is linked to their own daemon, an animal-shaped manifestation of their soul. (I love this idea!).

In Pullman’s long-awaited follow up, The Book of Dust, and its first volume, La Belle Sauvage, we’re introduced to the prequel (to the original trilogy) set ten years before the first adventure, when Lyra is just an infant in need of protection from the burgeoning powers of the Magisterium. In Lyra’s place as ‘hero’ is Malcolm Polstead. He’s a bright, curious, and capable eleven-year-old who helps his parents at their Oxford pub and also spends a lot of time helping out the nuns at a local priory. In his free time, he’s out on the river in his canoe, which he named “La Belle Sauvage.” One day at the pub, he overhears the news that the local nuns have taken in an infant – Lyra – who is the daughter of two powerful figures — a man named Lord Asriel and a woman named Marisa Coulter. At around the same time, he sees a man arrested by agents of the Magisterium, and later discovers that the man has mysteriously drowned in the river. Going over the area where he first saw the now-deceased man, he finds an item that the man lost — a brass acorn with a hidden message inside. He discovers that the acorn is used as a means to covertly deliver messages to a local scholar who belongs to a secret anti-Magisterium society, and who has access to an alethiometer, which is a truth-divining tool that figured prominently in Pullman’s original trilogy. When a massive flood overtakes Oxford, Malcolm and a teenager, Alice, spirit Lyra away in Malcolm’s canoe in order to avoid a murderous scientist and agents of the Magisterium who are keenly interested in kidnapping the infant.

As this is a prequel to the original trilogy, the Magisterium has not yet established its oppressive control on society, but it’s well on its way to this kind of power. In The Book of Dust-La Belle Sauvage, Pullman illustrates how the Magisterium is infiltrating the very core of society and tightening its grip on every aspect of daily life. Its security force assassinates, assaults, and makes dissidents vanish, while it introduces a youth-oriented group to Malcolm’s school that encourages his classmates to report to the Magisterium the “heretical actions” of their peers, teachers, and parents. Teachers who object are reprimanded or fired. Tension and suspicion escalate. This League and its fascistic movements are similar to the Inquisitorial Squad in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but the anxiety and fear that Pullman creates with the onset and actions of this League, believably conveys the insidious and hypocritical rot fascist tendencies have on democracy.

In the interest of being judicious, there are a couple of storylines presented and dropped, and the concept of “dust” is really underdeveloped. However, the character of Malcolm holds the narrative together. He’s different from Lyra as the central hero, but he’s vibrant and compelling in his own right. Throughout the course of the novel, he transforms from a quiet, stout child to a hero willing to take radical steps to keep Lyra safe in the name of justice.

Ultimately, Pullman is a master storyteller, and La Belle Sauvage is worth the 17-year wait. Moreover, a tale about battling a rising tide of fascism as authoritarian ‘strongmen’ claim political power and alt-right groups spring up across the world, is timely. This is a tense, thrilling, and magical book that feels like a natural part of the saga that began with His Dark Materials.

 



The Accidental Further Adventures of the 100-Year-Old Man

The Accidental Further Adventures book reviewThe sequel to The One-Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson is another deft satire about the flaws of modern society. Using Allan and Julius’s latest adventures, with its madcap twists and turns, Jonasson creates a thought-provoking portrait of the current state of the world.

After climbing out the window of his retirement home on his 100th birthday and accidentally entangling himself in an epic adventure involving a suitcase full of cash and a gang of ruffians, the spry Allan and his best-and-only-friend Julius, settle into luxury on Bali. Most people wouldn’t grow bored of sipping cocktails beachside, but Allan and Julius aren’t like most people so their decadent life has become a bore and they’re restless. Julius decides to liven things up with a hot air balloon ride in honor of Allan’s one-hundred-and-first birthday. When the operator jumps out of the balloon to take a bite out of Allan’s birthday cake, Allan and Julius accidentally snap the lever that sets the balloon in motion and they go sailing up into the sky. But they’re not hot balloon experts, of course, and end up having a crash landing at sea before being rescued by a North Korean ship carrying smuggled uranium on board. Soon, Allan and Julius are swept up into an international diplomatic crisis that involves various global players such as Putin, Trump, Merkel, and Kim Jong-un.

I found myself looking forward to going to bed each night in order to continue reading this book in peace. Allan is an incredibly endearing character leading us through twists and turns galore in an intricately plotted book. All the while, Jonasson makes thoughtful and relevant points about power, truth, morality, and the role of perception in current affairs, and not in an ideological or pedantic way, but with nuance, wit, and warmth.

A highly amusing and intelligent book that I absolutely recommend!

 

 



Factfulness – a review of the book

factfulness book coverStatistician Hans, Ola, and Anna Rosling’s book Factfulness is about the progress that mankind has made over the last century and continues to make. The book proves that the world is not as bad as we sometimes think because we are bombarded with negative news about the state of current affairs. It’s accessible, interesting, and inspiring — filled with anecdotes and stories that support the facts and contribute to the book’s relevance.

I understand why it’s a bestseller. People are hungry for positive, factual information and this book provides it. I appreciate its efforts and the facts it conveys. I frequently consider the short test at the beginning of the book, when I discovered that my construct of world affairs is negatively biased. And, it’s interesting to contemplate why this is — we humans are compelled by dramatic events, and the media capitalizes on this historic compulsion in order to attract and sustain our interest. It’s a relief to discover that globally more people are literate than ever before, and more children are immunized than ever before. It’s interesting to discover that infant mortality is exponentially decreased across the world, and, in general, life spans are longer.

However, I’m not convinced that more humans being born, and more people living longer are “good” things. The Rosling’s focus for the book is human “progress.” The notion of a second and third world, a “them” and “us” perspective of the western world and the developing world that is out-dated. Populations across the globe are increasingly armed with clean drinking water, motorbikes, cars, appliances, mobile phones, televisions, and the ability to take holidays with their families. This book heralds these developments as achievements, and I understand that, indeed, they are in the sense that it’s more just that most people now have the opportunity for a higher standard of living. But, I believe this abides by the capitalistic notion of what “success” is, which is the ever-increasing accumulation of material wealth at the detriment to the natural world. More consuming by the ever-growing human population means there is more destruction of forests, rivers, agricultural lands, land historically needed by animals to live in, and, overall, contributes to increasing pollution in our oceans and in our atmosphere, as well as to the destruction of ecosystems. Little is said over the course of the book about the effect that this human “progress” has on the environment, which I argue is of more pressing importance.



Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus

frankenstein-book-pageThe concept of Frankenstein has invaded popular culture to the extent that even those that have never read the book have a vague sense of what it’s about – “a mad scientist who creates a monster!” This is essentially true, and given the multitudes of adaptations to film and TV, I, too, previously defined it thus. But it’s so much more. Frankenstein is about love, loss, identity, anger, betrayal, beauty, and ugliness. It is also very sad. There was a point when I thought I couldn’t continue reading it, but because it’s so beautifully written and so subtle in its complexity, I continued.

The novel begins with explorer Robert Walton searching for a new passage from Russia to the Pacific Ocean via the Arctic Ocean. After some time at sea, with their boat stuck in ice, the crew and Walton find Victor Frankenstein floating on an ice flow very near to death, and bring him aboard. Walton re tells the tragic story of Victor Frankenstein through a series of letters to his sister in England. Victor was a precocious child who grew up on the shores of Geneva in a wealthy and loving family. He leaves home for university, where he studies physical science and greatly impresses his fellow students and professors by his genius. Spurred on by ambition, Victor uses a combination of chemistry, alchemy, and electricity to create and re animate a dead body. Once the creature comes to life, Victor is overcome by guilt and runs away in fear and disgust. The monster wanders the countryside, repudiated and despised by all who see him. He eventually teaches himself to read and to understand language. One day, he discovers a notebook and letters that were lost by Victor. From these notes, the monster learns of his creation and decides to take revenge on his creator as a salve for the injury and sorrow that he has endured in isolation. His vengeance is horrible. Yet through a conversation with Victor in which the monster relates how his life has been and in which he appeals to him to make him a mate (which Victor refuses), one almost forgives the sorrow that he causes.

As the daughter of philosophers and advocates for women’s rights, Mary Shelley would have been exposed to sociological discussion throughout her life. When she wrote Frankenstein, the French Revolution had just ended and Europe was afraid that its ideas of liberty and equality might spread. Industrialization was just beginning, which would bring an end to the landed class and see a rise of the middle class. Alchemy and superstition had been discredited in favor of hard sciences. Shelley manifests these cultural events through the themes and motifs of Frankenstein: she is concerned with the invasion of technology into modern life; how knowledge and science is used for good or for evil purposes; the overwhelming power of nature, as well as its curative power; and the treatment of the poor or uneducated. At its heart, Shelley asks the reader to consider how we can control the knowledge we have so that it’s for the benefit of all of mankind. How far should advances in science and technology push the individual in terms of personal and spiritual growth? When does man become a slave to his machines? What constitutes a “good” life? Who is responsible for the most vulnerable in society? Provocative questions about the human condition posed almost 200 years ago that remain relevant today.

http://www.biography.com/people/mary-shelley-9481497

 



Emma by Jane Austen

emma_jane_austen_book_coverOn a long list of my favorite authors and beloved books, Jane Austen is always prominently featured. I think she’s hilarious and subversive. I’d even argue she’s a feminist. Other readers have obviously found Emma irresistible because the book has continuously been in print since 1816 (it helps, however, that it’s mandatory reading for most secondary schools in the English-speaking world).

My favorite Austen book is without-a-doubt Persuasion, even as I truly appreciate Northanger Abby. Nonetheless, this is a brief review of Emma, which I have just re-read, so while it’s fresh I thought to write a note encouraging readers to read this novel if they haven’t already.

Emma is a special work. Along with Pride and Prejudice it’s frequently adapted for film and television. Austen wrote this book shortly before she would die and by this time, she was at the height of her authorial skills. While the deceptively simple plot of Emma is similar to Austen’s other novels – a cycle of wrong-headedness, misunderstandings, remorse, penitence, and, finally, self-realization (inclusive of a romantic pairing of ‘equals’) – this work is richer in its twists-and-turns even as it maintains narrative control. Moreover, the themes of status and marriage are still relevant. As is the ‘moral’ of the book, which is that self-knowledge is elusive, and vanity a source of pain. What appeals to me most about Austen’s work in general is that they are all acute studies of humanity: “the happiest delineation of its varieties,” prompted by “the most thorough knowledge of human nature.” Her ability to create compelling and universal characters is awe-inspiring. Sly and subtle observations, humorous quips and asides, and we’re chuckling at the foibles and frustrations of humankind. Moreover, the omniscient narrator, which Austen had perfected by the time she wrote Emma, means the reader is privy to the innermost thoughts of our heroine as she finds her way through the narrative. And this heroine is complex and difficult. Austen famously wrote to a friend that in Emma she had created “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” It’s true. There are times when I find Emma’s character repugnant – snobbish, rude, obstinate, foolish and thoughtless – but then I find patience and kindness for her. She is young after all, and she doesn’t mean to be hurtful. In the end, I find my own best nature in my judgement of Emma, which parallels the heroine’s own journey, and makes for a richer literary experience.

 

 



Queen of the Desert: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell

indexAn English friend of mine loaned me this “must read” book because she had so thoroughly enjoyed it and wanted me to share in the experience. Indeed, Queen of the Desert: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell by Georgina Howell is fascinating because Bell is a strong female character and the Middle East remains relevant.

The book begins with Bell’s birth in 1868 to industrialists in the North of England. Outspoken and quick-witted, she became a historian, a linguist, an “Arabist,” an archaeologist, a mountaineer, an author, and a photographer. After many explorations into the Arabian deserts and a passion for Arabian culture, she became one of the architects for an independent kingdom in Iraq, helping to put its first king, Faisal, safely onto the throne in 1921.

Queen of the Desert is superbly researched and includes Bell’s own writing, both published and unpublished. However, while I admired Bell’s courage and persistence, I was not particularly intrigued by her personal story. Even as she was a woman in a man’s world who achieved things most women wouldn’t dream of, she was the daughter of an extremely privileged family with immense resources at her disposal. Instead, I found the information about the history and politics of the region captivating. The insight into the historical meddling from foreign countries, the social protocols of the desert, the diverse sects that abound throughout the Middle East, and their respective perceptions of the world as well as their feudal wars, are, in my opinion, the most engrossing aspects of this book. The information gained from reading Queen of the Desert also made me realize that the challenges that existed at the turn of the 20th century in the Middle East still exist today.