Archive for April 2015
Fasting, Feasting by Anita Desai, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999, 228 pp.
The title drew me in. (Also, I’ll admit, the Booker Prize Finalist sticker on the cover.) The title made me think this book would have some rich theological insight hidden inside, even if it never mentioned God. Fasting and feasting are such rich concepts for contemplation. The book did follow its title with interwoven threads of deprivation and abundance, although it did not capture my heart and mind as much as I had hoped.
The story is told in two parts, from two central characters. The first part takes place in India, and focuses on Uma, the eldest sister of an aspiring middle-class family. Uma is a bit slow-witted and physically clumsy, but she has dreams for her life. However, at every turn, her parents thwart her aspirations and turn her into a servant in the household. Her prospects for marriage crumble, and she is denied even the simplest pleasures. She is not alone. Nearly all the women in the story are bound in service to men, their own dreams unsupported and unsustained.
The second part takes place in the United States, and focuses on Arun, the youngest child and only boy in the family. The family (especially Uma) sacrifices everything so that Arun can succeed, achieve and prosper. While it seems that he has everything, he longs desperately for affection. During his time in the United States, the land of plenty, he sees the elements of physical and emotional deprivation in American family life, even as he himself goes hungry rather than eat meat with the host family.
The novel is beautiful, intricate and run through with allusions to various kinds of fasting and feasting. At times, it felt a bit heavy-handed to me, like it was a morality tale or parable about abundance and deprivation, rather than a novel. Uma felt more like a real character about whom I cared than Arun did. I yearned for redemption in the story, but hunger won out over satisfaction for both Arun and Uma.
This is a book I appreciated more than I enjoyed, recognizing its merits while never quite falling under its spell.
I am fast becoming a leading member of the Kent Haruf fan club. After discovering Benediction not long ago, I was determined to read more of his work. At the library, they all looked so intriguing I couldn’t decide which one to borrow—so I took home all three. Plainsong was the first one I chose to read, because it was recognized as a National Book Award finalist. It was just as lovely as Benediction had been, and made me glad to have two more Haruf novels waiting on my shelf.
Plainsong unpacks the intertwining lives of ordinary, yet quirky, people in a small town east of the Rockies. (At one point, I became fascinated by where Holt might be, and whether it is a real place. It is a real county in western Nebraska, and the highways described match the highways on the map.) The characters include two young brothers, Ike and Bobby, 9 and 10, left alone much of the time to explore the town and their independence. Their mother is a minor character, afflicted by mental illness and recently separated from them and their father, but their father Tom Guthrie is central. He is a high school teacher who tangles with the family of a student he fails, and has a developing relationship with fellow teacher Maggie Jones. When student Victoria Roubideaux discovers she is pregnant and kicked out of her home, she turns to Maggie for help. Maggie turns to two reclusive brothers, Raymond and Harold McPheron to take her in.
Plainsong‘s style and story echo its title: a simple telling of their stories, and how they come together in unison, simple and unadorned. Ike and Bobby lose a bit of their childish innocence, discovering some harsh truths about sex and violence and relationships, but the adults in the story guide them through. Tom Guthrie and Maggie Jones help heal one another of broken relationships. Victoria and the McPheron brothers are the most unlikely of partners, and many of their awkward encounters made me chuckle. Still, they were charming and good-hearted, and Haruf has a way of weaving all his characters together such that they are all less lonely by the end of the story.
I was also intrigued by the western setting of the book, with stories about cattle and horses and rural life that offered a unique insight into this region of the country. I have driven through small towns in western Kansas, western Nebraska and eastern Colorado, and I could imagine all the scenes of the story in those locations.
Plainsong was lovely, through and through, with a kind of simple beauty that is only possible by refined, well-worn, carefully crafted prose. I am looking forward to the next Haruf novel in line, and hoping to encounter some of these characters “around town” next time.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009, 532 pp.
I stumbled into this by impulse and accident, buying Bringing Up the Bodies from the discount bin only to set it aside when I realized it was part two of a series. When my eyes caught Wolf Hall on the library shelf, I decided to give it a try. I’m so glad I did.
Wolf Hall is the story of Thomas Cromwell. Set against the backdrop of Henry VIII’s romance with Anne Boleyn, the book covers the subtle machinations of Cromwell’s service to Cardinal Wolsey, then Henry and Anne. Cromwell is usually a side plot in most books on this place and time. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn have had countless novels imagining their relationship, personalities and political maneuverings. Likewise with Sir Thomas More, Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), who get feature roles. Cromwell, however, is generally portrayed as the aide or antagonist to these main characters. Wolf Hall finally gives him the spotlight in our imaginations.
The book begins with a brief account of a working class, violent childhood, followed by disclosure of youthful wanderings and military service on the continent that remain shrouded in mystery. He emerges from time on the continent as a wealthy, well-connected, senior advisor to Cardinal Wolsey. Wolf Hall imagines how the most trusted advisor to Wolsey could somehow maneuver to become the most trusted advisor to Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, which is an unlikely assimilation but true to history.
Mantel’s storytelling is wonderful, and even after 532 rich pages, I still wanted more. She portrays Cromwell as the smartest man in every room, a scholar with a kindly heart and a desire for grace. He is willing to do what is necessary to accomplish the goals of his master (or his own, which are never quite explicit); however, in spite of about his bloody past as a soldier, Cromwell avoids violence as his tactic, unlike More and the King. In every other portrayal I’ve seen, he is mean-spirited, cold, calculating and harsh. In Wolf Hall, I liked him immediately. He is still calculating, but aloof instead of cold, and winsome in his humor and intellect. His Reformation tendencies emerge as a desire for knowledge, of the scriptures especially.
I can’t wait to dive into Bringing Up the Bodies, and I am already enjoying the miniseries version of Wolf Hall currently airing on Masterpiece Classic on PBS. Wolf Hall is a great read.