Thursday, April 25, 2013

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Published in 2010 and in paperback with Reader's Guide in 2011 by Random House Trade, this fiction comedy is one of the funniest books I have read in a long time.  Our book club read it while I was snow birding  for the winter and most of the women found it amusing, while I have absolutely laughed aloud  many times and chuckled others.  It is the author's first novel.  

Told through the experiences of the main character,  Major Ernest Pettigrew, a retired widower living quietly in his cottage in a small English village of Edgecombe St Mary. His wit, remarks and observations are dry yet  so very  biting at times and  so very British. While working  through his grief over the recent unexpected death of his younger brother Bertie,  the Major is befriended by Mrs Jasmina Ali, a widow and local Pakistani shopkeeper.  Although she was born and raised in England she is considered a foreigner by the local townspeople because of her dark skin.  Other amazing characters abound and create human circuses on every page. There are the environmental protesters busy railing against development and  engaging the children en mass.  The Major suffers encounters with  his only child, Roger an adult,  who is overly impressed with himself and his career in London  finance and who is sure that  the Major is losing it at his age of 68.  The ladies of the town are engaged in selecting the theme for  the annual dinner dance and the  husbands are engaged at the local golf club or country shoots. The evening of the dance ends with gut splitting uproarious chaos  of all the characters and then the novel takes a slightly serious turn.  


Anyway, very well written,  this debut novel that leaves me anticipating subsequent books by  Helen Simonson.  In the Reader's Guide, I found myself  agreeing with the  comment that Major Pettigrew is "something of a love letter to civility and person to person conversation about books and ideas" in an age of increasing impersonal and brief digital communication.     I enjoyed the author's comment on how she writes and how it has become a job, work, not something to squeeze in now and then.  "I have slowly come to the conclusion that this struggle to find consistency and a good routine and to pile up creative work, is the challenge of all creative people.  It is what separates the writer from the person who has an idea for a novel if they could just find the time."  

Page 5....while considering that with his wife and brother gone and  Roger living in London, the Major finds himself alone and he thinks,,,,"of course there was Marjorie, his unpleasant sister-in-law, but,  like his late parents, he had never fully accepted her.  She had loud ill-formed opinions, and a north country accent that scraped the eardrum like a dull  razor."  

Page 10.. the Major comments about the imprudent funeral arrangements and appeasing people...."I assume the youth are in crisis every week....It's a funeral for God's sake, let them put the needs of others ahead of their own for once.  It might teach them something. "  Perhaps watching the unfolding  for the committal service of Jerry's late mother I relished the judgement. 

Page 66...Mrs Ali speaks kindly,  "The world is full of small ignorances and we must all do our best to ignore them and keep them small."  

Another 5 ***** read.  It left me grinning and kept  me giggling or even laughing out loud while I read.  

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Hemingway's Girl by Erika Robuck

Published in 2012, and the first novel for the author, this 321 pages came as a gift, a first edition and signed by the author.  I had read a review somewhere and thought it an "interesting concept" as my friend wrote;  it was on my list of perhaps to pick up at a book sale.  I will be recommending it to my book club and will be interested in their reactions.  It begins with detailed descriptive writing which I prefer.   Look at this phrase  on the very first page,  "Her slender forearms flexed to the pole, and drops of sweat mingled with sprays of seawater, leaving a briny film on her skin."  The comparisons are further demonstration of the thought that the author has put into her work, not just merely slapping words onto the page.

Page 3 in reference to the banyan trees, "She could still feel the banyan's presence, though its great woody roots strangling some old host tree.  She remembered when Hemingway had planted a banyan at his house and told her its parasitic roots were like human desire."     It did stir my interest to perhaps someday, reread Hemingway's books which reside smartly on my home library shelf, read long ago in  youth.  Interesting that the author is a self proclaimed Hemingway'phile having read  Farewell to Arms  at 19 years of age,  It is good to have read while young, I believe, because this is the beginning of knowledge and  foundation of lifelong interests.

On pages 108-- Mariella, describes her turmoil with her mother, a long grieving widow who pulls others into her self misery.  She writes that her anger outweighed her compassion for her mother as they exchange viscious comments.  Oh, that was a familiar scene. 

The story did not always follow as I thought it would  and while this book is certainly not a mystery, but historical fiction, it's predicaments kept me reading along.  The main character Mariella tells the tale and as the author admits in the reader's guide at the end of the book, her seed of question about the boy's father intrigued me.  I had forgotten some history of the 1930's that she  includes and the  US government's  attitude toward veterans.   I did not know about the Labor Day hurricane.  The author does a marvelous job making that tragedy pertinent to today and the FEMA, etc.governmental intervention during  Katrina, Sandy, and all other natural disasters.  The other message is some attitudes today are not new.  Erika Robuck  achieved her stated  goal of interconnecting a historical span while  transporting people and places across time.

I give it  just shy of a 4**** rating.  It was a fast enough read and one I will share.  I was glad to have gotten this gift.  

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Alaska by James Michener

First published in 1988, then in the paperback edition in 1989 this was one of the few Michener's I had not read  although I have a shelf of  complete works. In January I determined this was a must read prior to our August journey to Alaska and so it traveled south with us and then returned home.  It is a Michener tome, a wonderful work, over 1100 pages, very small print but I finished it last month; read very little of it on our trip when I  went through other books faster.  James Michener is one of  my all time favorites if not the number one author, who else  does such marvelous research and delves into history, geography, sociology, anthropology, biology, geology and all facets of whatever subject he tackled, perhaps David McCullough and is it not a coincidence both authors are Pennsylvanians with roots into Pittsburgh.

An adroitly blended mixture of fact and fiction, woven through 12 chapters covering geolocigal concepts beginning far before the prehistoric era  with Clashing Terranes and culminating with Alaskan statehood in the final chapter, Rim of Fire there is no history nor anthropology of a peoples untouched. The early movement of the woolly mammoth and the arrival of humans is almost comical but becomes tragic.  I cannot begin to adequately review this book;  readers who enjoy learning as they read and spending a good long time delving into a work enjoy Michener.  It is neither light reading nor for someone lacking rudimentary literary, historical, sociological background.  As only Michener can do, the historical is expanded upon, characters embellished or created and their descendants survive through the ages tying all the chapters back to the earliest times and memorializing events.    It is not until Chapter 3, that humans arrive, first on a small island of the Aleutians, about 12,000BPE however the Athapascans are the first,  much  much later the Eskimos and  finally the Aleuts who were probably a mixture of Eskimo while the Tlingits were descended from the Athapascans.  The Russians, English and Americans explorers, sailors, narrative covers  Tsar Peter the Great, Vitus Bering, George Steller and Aleksei Chirikov, Captain James Cook, William Bligh, George Vancouver and more. 

I was a teenager in 1959 when Alaska  became a state and I recall then from studies that it must surely be a desolate wilderness.  The Alaskan history, settlements, heritage of the Russian Orthodox  church, seal hunting, life cycles of salmon, reindeer, whales,  gold rush, mining techniques and equipments,  land rush and maneuvers of the Seattle businessmen who conspired to keep it as a territory make fascinating pondering.  I never  knew before reading this book about the US government land give away and transport of hearty stock Minnesotan  but starving  farm families  to settle the Matanuska Valley in the depression.  The families had to be intact families, husband and wife and children, no single stragglers, healthy stock preferred to be German and Finn ancestry.  Those who went and stayed in Alaska prospered eventually but many returned to their homes in MN disheartened.  It was a very different aspect of another type of homestead, managed by the US  government.  This is absolutely a 5 *****. 

I have marked up many passages in my previously pristine volume.  Page 94 for one passage,  as Azaruk an early human ponders,  "Will I find a refuge for my people?  Does that matter?  And as he tucked the little figure back in its pouch he could hear the laughter, the chuckling of the wind coming over the hail, the exhilaration of a whale breaching after a long  submarine chase, the gaiety of a young fox chasing birds and lessly, the wonderful hallowed sound of a universe that does not care whether a man finds refuge or not, so long as he enjoys the irreverent pleasure of the search. "  See and feel the picture that passage portrays?  

Page 106 on the origin of the word Alaska, is precious  linguistic history,  "The Aleutian word for  Great Land was Alaxsxaq'"   but earliest  Europeans stopping in this portion of the arctic asked  the name of the lands ,   and in their tongues Alaxsxaq became Alaska. 

Page 207, when the a settler considers to marry an Eskimo woman, Kiinak, "Let this be a lesson.  Good lives only come from  good beginnings. "

When we tour Alaska in August I will have knowledge to build upon and an enhanced perspective having read this great work.