Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Life and Death in Chechnya

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This beautiful and haunting novel is one of my favorite books of 2013. It takes place in post-war Chechnya, but don't be alarmed if you don't know much about the Chechen conflict with Russia — the rich storytelling and the gorgeous prose will draw you in, and by the end of the book you could captivate an audience with these wartime stories. 

But first, you must meet Havaa, a precocious little girl whose father was just taken by federal forces, probably never to be seen again. Havaa ran into the woods to hide, which is why the soldiers didn't find her. The girl's mother is dead and she has no one else. A neighbor, Akhmed, helps Havaa escape to a nearby town and convinces a doctor, Sonja, to look after her. Soon our cast of characters will expand and we will meet Akhmed's wife, Havaa's father, Sonja's sister, and other residents in the village of Eldar, each of them with a story to tell.

One of my favorite characters was Sonja, a tough doctor who left Chechnya to attend medical school in London, but she returned to her war-torn country to try and help her sister, Natasha, who later disappeared: 

"Though she was the elder, Sonja was always thought of as Natasha's sister, the object rather than the subject of any sentence the two shared. She walked alone down the school corridors, head sternly bent toward the stack of books in her arms ... Sonja had more academic journal subscriptions than friends. She could explain advanced calculus to her fifth-form algebra teacher but couldn't tell a joke to a boy at lunch. Even in the summer months, she had the complexion of someone who spent too much time in a cellar. Everyone knew Sonja was destined for great things, but no one knew what to do with her until then."

Another character I loved was Akhmed, a man who studied to be a doctor but who would rather have been an artist. He jokes that he is the worst doctor in Chechnya, but he still manages to help his patients and their families, sometimes by drawing portraits of those who have been killed or taken by the feds.

Anthony Marra's writing is beautiful, with stunning sentences that made me pause and reread them. If I hadn't been reading a library book I would have underlined innumerable paragraphs. (The page-long sentence on p. 139 was so emotional and breathtaking that I actually gasped.) Each chapter opens with a timeline, pinpointing a year between 1994 and 2004, and the flashbacks illuminate what happened to our characters during the war. While the chapter focuses on one character's perspective, the stories ebb and flow together like overlapping melodies. 

This is a novel whose plotting and gracefulness I admired so much that as soon as I had finished it, I immediately wanted to start over and read it again. What details! What connections! This is the kind of novel I love to read -- one that is complex and meaningful and full of humanity and life and I wish I could give a copy to every bookish friend I know. Ann Patchett, who is one of my favorite writers, told The New York Times that this was her favorite book she's read this year. Agreed.

Note: If you're wondering what the title means, it is taken from a definition in a medical dictionary: "Life: a constellation of vital phenomena -- organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation."

Humor, Friendship and Devotion

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is the book that made me want to be a writer. I read it in high school after my favorite English teacher wrote down the title on a Post-It note and said, "You need to read this." I immediately went and found a copy and had it finished it by the end of the week. 

There is no way I can write a review that is worthy of this novel, but I shall try. It is the story of two boys in New Hampshire in the 1950s: the narrator is Johnny Wheelwright, whose family is wealthy; and his friend, Owen Meany. How to describe Owen? He was small and light, and he had a loud, high-pitched voice. He was smart and a loyal friend. Owen's parents were a bit odd, and his family was poor enough that the Wheelwrights often helped Owen with tuition and clothing.

The first chapter brings a tragedy: Johnny and Owen are playing baseball. Owen, who doesn't usually get to bat because he was so small, was told by the coach to go ahead and swing. Owen hits a foul ball that strikes Johnny's mother and kills her. Johnny is devastated and has trouble forgiving Owen, but they eventually make peace, thanks to a stuffed armadillo toy. (Thus explaining the armadillo pictured on some editions.)

The rest of the chapters cover the boys as they grow up and go to prep school. Owen has a gift for writing and pens some inflammatory columns in the school newspaper. There is also a hilarious prank that Owen pulls on a teacher he doesn't like, which involves a car, some athletes and a stage.

One of my favorite sections of the book describes a church Christmas pageant that goes horribly awry. Owen, who can be a bit bossy, takes over the pageant and assigns himself the role of Baby Jesus, even though in previous years it was just a doll. It's a laugh-out-loud disaster, and almost every year at Christmastime I'll pull out this book and reread the chapter.

When the boys turn 18, the Vietnam War is escalating and Owen signs up for the Reserve Officers Training Corps, which will pay for his college tuition while he serves. Owen even comes up with a plan to spare Johnny from having to go to Vietnam. Owen always has a plan, you see.

The plot slowly builds and builds, and I would describe it as a crescendo. There is a purpose to everything in the story, and by the end of the book, we understand why things had to be exactly what they were.

If you are a first-time reader of this novel, I need to warn you that there is a difficult passage at the beginning. Johnny, who is now an adult and has left the United States and moved to Canada, discusses his feelings about religion. I think this is the point where some readers get frustrated and abandon the book, but I urge you, I implore you, I beg you -- do not give up. There is a reason for it. If you can power through the discussion of churches, you will break through to a wonderful story.

Speaking of religion, I would be remiss not to mention the comparison to Jesus that Irving made. Whenever Owen speaks, his dialogue is in ALL CAPS. Bible readers will note that Jesus' words were printed in an all-red font in many editions. There are other similarities to Christ, but the less said on this, the better.

I have reread this book many times since I first read it in 1990, and each time, it moves me again. Some novels are easy to explain -- this one is not. It's a marvelous mix of comedy and drama and bildungsroman and the meaning of our lives, and I am grateful to have it in my life. I am not a religious person, but I became so attached to the character of Owen that thinking about him can make me a bit misty-eyed. He is complex and fleshed out in a way that few fictional characters are. 

Note: This book meant so much to me that I was horrified to hear that Hollywood made it into a movie. There is no way this book could be captured on film. Luckily someone had the good sense to change the title -- probably a demand of Mr. Irving -- but I have no intention of ever seeing it. I have a hobby of comparing movies adaptations with the source material, but this book is the exception. I want to remember it in its pure form. Owen would want it that way.

Until Death

Until DeathUntil Death by James L. Thane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Men are being murdered and Phoenix cop Sean Richardson is on the case. When an escort comes forward saying all the men were listed in her missing appointment book, Sean and his partner Maggie race against time to warn the men. But the escort has someone threatening her as well...

I know it's terribly unfashionable to talk about author behavior but James L. Thane is one of the most personable and least intrustive Goodreads Authors out there. Not only did he not try to push his book on me, I actually had to shame him into sending me a copy to review.

Until Death is James' second novel and the second appearance of Sean Richardson as well. It's been a while since I read No Place to Die but it was easy to step back into Sean Richardson's life. Sean and Maggie are back and running down leads, trying to catch a killer and figure out who's stalking Gina Gallagher.

Until Death is James L. Thane's love letter to the police procedural but manages to steer clear of a lot of genre cliches. I felt like Richardson was a good cop without being some kind of super hero. Richardson is realistically haunted by the untimely death of his wife and prefers to be alone rather than bedding anything with a pulse like a lot of detective characters. Maggie McClinton and Gina Gallagher were both well-written characters, far from the cardboard cutouts found in a lot of tales.

I enjoy being mislead and not being able to pick out the killer in detective fiction and James had me chasing my own tail a bit. I sure didn't guess who the killer was. I did figure out who was stalking Gina but that wasn't as difficult to figure out.

Another thing I like about the Sean Richardson books is the setting. It's really refreshing to read a detective story that doesn't take place in Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. The desert setting adds a little something extra to the tale.

You remember when one of your friends in college was in a punk band that you were afraid to see live for fear of them sucking? If James Thane were a punk band, he'd be The Clash. 4 out of 5 stars.

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The Lady in the Lake

The Lady in the Lake (Philip Marlowe, #4)The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A rich man hires Phillip Marlowe to find his wife. The trail leads to a resort town and another dead woman. Where is Crystal Kingsley? And who killed Muriel Chess? And what did Chris Lavery or Dr. Almore have to do with it?

The Lady in the Lake is a tale of lies, double crosses, cheating woman, murder, and a shop-soiled Galahad named Phillip Marlowe caught in the middle of it. Chander and Marlowe set the standards for slick-talking detectives for generations to come and Marlowe is in fine form in this outing, following the serpentine twists of the plot as best he can. Chandler's similes are in fine form, as is Marlowe's banter.

Since Raymond Chandler is my favorite of the noir pioneers, I feel guilty for saying this but this thing is so convoluted I stopped caring about the plot about a third of the way in and just stuck around for the Scotch-smooth prose. Seriously, this has to be the most convoluted plot from the master of overly convoluted plots. I had an idea of the connection between the two women but it took forever for everything to come together. Marlowe couldn't be blamed for not cracking the case early on since it read like Raymond Chandler was making it up as he went in between weekend-long benders.

To sum it up, the prose is up to par but the plot is a meandering mess. It's barely a 3 and my least favorite Chandler book I've read so far.

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