Reviews for the latest batch of books I’ve been reading.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. This book created a scandal when it was published in 1955. I first read Lolita at University I think. It’s the story of European academic, Humbert Humbert, and his attraction to “nymphets” (under-aged girls in other words). Humbert tells his story from prison.

Yes, this is a book about the sexual relationship between a middle-aged man and a 12-year-old American girl (Dolores “Lolita” Haze). But Nabokov is such a skilled writer that you feel sympathetic for Humbert. In lesser hands, you would have viewed Humbert as nothing more than a monstrous pedophile.

I don’t view this book as a “love story” (as many reviews describe it) because Humbert is incapable of love.

This is a postmodern novel and it works on so many levels. It’s part detective story (Humbert is a murderer); it’s a tale of tragic obsession and revenge; it’s a post-WWII American road trip novel; it’s the story of one man’s psychological need to control and possess; but it’s also the story of Lolita’s power over Humbert.

Hard to believe that English was not Nabokov’s native language, such is the beauty and fluency of his prose. Clever wordplay runs throughout the novel – a secondary character, Vivian Darkbloom, is an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov; Humbert and Lolita drive through a town, Soda, Pop 1001; a major character, Clare Quilty, rhymes with guilty; the numbers 52 and 342 occur repeatedly.

It’s a dark, violent and disturbing novel yet, at times, quite funny. Ultimately, it’s the story of a lonely man – a cultured European cast adrift in a post-WWII America shaped by vulgar consumerism.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. This book is also called Everyman Dies Alone. Rudolf Ditzen wrote under the name of Hans Fallada in the first half of the 20th Century. His personal history is fascinating: born in Germany in 1893, Fallada was an alcoholic who was also addicted to drugs; in 1911, he killed a schoolfriend in a dual; spent time in psychiatric hospitals; and had a tenuous relationship with the Nazis.

The book was published in 1947, shortly after Fallada’s death at age 53. It’s the story of German resistance to the Nazis and, as such, is a refreshing take on the Nazi era.

The main characters are Otto and Anna Quangel, an ordinary Berlin working couple. The death of their son, Ottochen, in 1940 triggers their resistance to the German war effort. Otto spends Sundays writing protest messages on postcards and dropping them around Berlin. Most of the postcards end up in the hands of the Gestapo and, ultimately, the couple are arrested.

The novel is populated with a cast of vivid characters: Gestapo Inspector Escherich; Emil Borkhausen (a pimp); drunken Old Persicke and his ambitious Nazi-supporting sons; Frau Rosenthal, an old Jewish lady who meets a tragic end.

The novel conveys the desperation of the German people, who are driven by suspicion and fear. The slightest hint that one might not support National Socialism could end up with a knock on the door and the Gestapo.

I thought Fallada did an exceptional job of conveying the coldness of Hitler’s Berlin and the insanity of the Nazis. Yet, flashes of kindness and integrity still existed. I particularly liked the growth in Otto and Anna’s moral courage. Neither Otto nor Anna are likely dissidents. Otto works in a factory and Anna is a housewife.

Both are tortured by the Gestapo and a regime who cares for no-one, least of all the Jewish people. And yet Otto realises that “everyone matters” and this is the moral heart of the book.

I liked the staccato writing style of Fallada as it echoed the brutality of the era. Apparently, Fallada wrote this novel in one month and this is the first time it’s been available in English.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx. The latest novel from the Pulitzer Prize winner and an epic at more than 700+ pages.  I’d love to say it is exceptional but I found it very preachy and the writing flat. The novel spans 300 years, from the arrival of French settlers in Canada in 1693 to an account of melting glaciers in 2013.

The theme of the book is the environment, particularly the destruction of the forests. The main characters are René Sel and Charles Duquet and we follow the bloodlines of these two men. The story takes us to Dutch coffee houses in Amsterdam; to the kauri forests of New Zealand; to logging camps and the harsh treatment of indigenous people in America.

What I didn’t like was that nothing was left for the reader to imagine or interpret. Proulx hits us over the head with all the details and I found the silly names of some characters very distracting (for example: Brenton Dred-Peacock, Jim Sillyboy, Blade Scugog, Louis Bluzzard).

So many characters were hastily killed off you never really get to know them. But I suppose this did portray the brutality of the time period (disease and forest accidents) and Proulx wants to tell the story of the environment (the forest really), rather than a character-driven narrative.

The last 40 pages seemed rushed to me and the narrative voice was always preachy and judgemental. To learn that Proulx had to axe 150 pages from the original manuscript is a small mercy.

I did enjoy the meticulous research and attention to historical detail. It’s certainly a wide-sweeping saga of North American history and a new addition to environmental fiction.

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker. A wonderful book from a skillful and very visual writer. It’s based on the experiences of Irish author, Samuel Beckett, in wartime France and focuses on his relationship with a French girl, Suzanne, who later becomes his wife in real life. The story follows their journey south from Paris to Roussillon after they have come to the notice of the Gestapo. The point of view is Beckett.

Baker illuminates the gritty realities of war: hunger, worn boots, blistered feet, rotting teeth, the fear of betrayal; cold and inadequate clothing. The writing style is beautifully paced and is an example of the contemporary, contemplative present-tense prose. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs. This book has great reviews. I reached p.125 and couldn’t go on. I just wasn’t engaged in the characters and I found the main character, Lucia Joyce, irritating. The narrator is the daughter of the writer, James Joyce (who also turns up in Jo Baker’s book).

The story shifts between Zurich in 1934 and sessions of psychoanalysis with Dr. Carl Jung and 1920’s Paris, where Lucia’s life revolves around dancing and her parents. She is attracted to Samuel Beckett (the main character in Baker’s novel) and sculptor Alexander Calder. But both abandon her and she descends into madness.

I wish I could have finished the novel but I wasn’t invested in the story.

One Half From The East by Nadia Hashimi. This book is Young Adult fiction and an author’s note reveals the core of the story – “The moment we look past gender and look at the heart of a child, we will see a world of potential that can take him or her all the way to the mountaintop.

Set in Afghanistan, it explores the rigidly enforced gender roles of the country. The main character is a 10-year-old girl, Obayda, who is transformed into a bacha posh: a boy. Following a bomb blast in Kabul and the loss of her father’s leg, Obayda’s family moves to a small rural village. Culturally, there is a belief that boys are good fortune and so, to attract better luck, Obayda experiences life for a few months as a boy.

Hashimi is a good writer and you connect well with the characters. This would be a great book for young adults as it invites an exploration of gender equality issues.

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J Church. Exceptional writing. Not the visual writing that I like (a’la Anthony Doerr or Jo Baker) but the powerful use of minimalist wording to convey an emotion or action. Here’s an example:

We have to take flight. It’s not given to us, served up on a pretty, parsley-bordered platter. We have to take wing. Was I brave enough to do that? Or would I be content to remain earthbound?”

Meridian Wallace gives up her ornithological studies to marry Alden Whetstone, a scientist involved in the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos. Meridian feels trapped in the rigid, claustrophobic social environment of the 1940s and 1950s – a time when women were expected to sacrifice their careers for those of the husband. Meridian finds solace in her study of crow behaviour in nearby canyons.

As the 1970s approach, she meets a young Vietnam veteran, Clay, and they embark on a love affair. The countercultural movement of the 60s and 70s is meticulously portrayed. I felt Clay was a little too good to be true but I liked how Church used Clay to shift Meridian’s thinking about herself and her marriage.

Ultimately, this is a book about the changing role of women from the mid-20th Century. I did find Alden a bit one-dimensional and Meridian too passive, but you have to remember the context of the time period. Meridian’s change through the course of the novel is powerful. I loved this novel.

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