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Moscow to the End of the Line (European Classics)
Moscow to the End of the Line (European Classics)
by Venedikt Erofeev
Edition: Paperback

36 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Vanichka's Journey, 21 Dec. 2002
Moskva-Petushki, which is translated in English as Moscow to the End of the Line, is Venedikt Erofeev's greatest work, one drunken man's (Venichka's) journey on the Moskovskaia-Gor'skovskaia train line to visit his lover and child in the Petushki. En route, Venichka talks with other travelers in dialogue and he also speaks in monologue about various themes such as drinking, Russian literature and philosophy and the sad, poetic soul of the Russian peasant. As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly dark, disoriented, hallucinogenic and surrealistic, in proportion to the narrator's alcohol intake.
Moscow to the End of the Line was written in 1970. During this time, Erofeev, himself, was traveling around the Soviet Union working as a telephone cable layer. Erofeev's friends have said the author made the story up in order to entertain his fellow workers as they traveled, and that many of these fellow workers were later incorporated as characters in the book.
The text of the novel began to be circulated in samizdat within the Soviet Union and then it was smuggled to the West where it was eventually translated into English. The official Russian language publication took place in Paris in 1977. With glasnost, Moscow to the End of the Line was able to be circulated freely within Russia, but, rather than stick to the original form, the novel was abridged in the government pamphlet Sobriety and Culture, ostensibly as a campaign against alcoholism. Finally, in 1995, it was officially published, together with all the formerly edited obscenities and without censorship.
Although he is an alcoholic, Venichka never comes across to the reader as despicable. Venichka is not a man who drinks because he wants to drink; he drinks to escape a reality that has gone beyond miserable and veered off into the absurd. He is not a stupid or pitiable character, but rather one who has no outlet for his considerable intelligence. That Venichka is very educated is obvious; he makes intelligent and well-read references to both literature and religion. However, in the restrictive Soviet Union of his time, there was no outlet for this kind of intelligent creativity; Venichka is forced to channel his creative instincts into bizarre drink recipes and visions of sphinxes, angels and devils.
Although many will see Moscow to the End of the Line as satire, it really is not. Instead, it is Erofeev's anguished and heartfelt cry, a cry that demanded change. Venichka is not a hopeless character, however, the situation in which he is living is a hopeless one.
A semi-autobiographical work, Moscow to the End of the Line was never meant as a denunciation of alcoholism but rather an explanation of why alcohol was so tragically necessary in the day-to-day life of citizens living under Soviet rule.
Moscow to the End of the Line is a highly entertaining book and it is a book that is very important in understanding the Russia of both yesterday and today as well. This book is really a classic of world literature and it is a shame that more people do not read Moscow to the End of the Line rather than relying on the standard "bestseller." This book deserves to be more widely read and appreciated.

Time And Again: Time and Again: Book One (FANTASY MASTERWORKS)
Time And Again: Time and Again: Book One (FANTASY MASTERWORKS)
by Jack Finney
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Romanticized, but Highly Entertaining, 21 Dec. 2002
Si Morely is a late twentieth-century artist who spends his days in the comfortable but non-creative pursuit of drawing boring illustrations, and his nights in an equally comfortable but not-so-great relationship with an interesting (but definitely not hot) antiques dealer. It's the type of relationship where you might get married someday, but then again, you might not. Si's girlfriend, however, is a lady with a secret: a burned, blue envelope that appears to warn of the the end of the world by fire.
The government interrupts Si's comfortable but mundane life when they make a proposal. The only problem is, Si has to agree before he can learn any of the details. As nothing particularly spectacular is happening in Si's life right now, he agrees and learns the government has been experimenting with time travel. They are now searching for the perfect people to send back in time, i.e., people who love history, who can recreate the past in their imaginations.
As it turns out, Si has a very good imagination and is the first to make the trip. He crosses time's threshold and enters New York in 1882, a place where he will encounter an old mystery and a future love.
Finney's Old New York is both magical and romanticized, a little like Mark Helprin's in Winter's Tale. Horses trot down the city streets, skyscrapers are only a dream and snow transforms the city into a winter wonderland. The streets are cobblestone, the men are gentlemen and people live in boarding houses whose windows reflect the light from the gas lamps lining the streets. It's an idealized version of New York, to be sure, and Finney doesn't tell us about the child labor, the rampant racism, the myriad of problems that were portrayed in Caleb Carr's The Alienist, for example. That's okay, because Time and Again is so good, and such wonderful entertainment, that we easily forgive Finney his historical inaccuracies.
While visiting the past, Si investigates his girlfriend's family secret, the secret of the blue envelope. Although a little contrived, this is a mystery with many twists and turns, at times sinister, at times amusing, but always engrossing.
Finney wisely presents no new earth-shaking ideas here and only briefly touches on themes such as the paradox and angst associated with fooling around with the course of history. Si is a man who interacts with the past in much the same way you or I probably would, and, ultimately, this is what makes Time and Again so very believable and so very good.
Gratefully, Finney eschews gimmicks and high-tech solutions to the problem of time travel and gracefully relies on plain old-fashioned will instead. That is part of why Si is able to accomplish it so easily. For him, history is more than names and dates in a book, it's something that's happening right now, something that can be recreated, if only one can get into the right frame of mind.
Time travel is a wonderful and entertaining genre if only it's handled correctly and handling it correctly is something Finney never fails to do. In Time and Again Finney gives us the complexity of a murder mystery wrapped in a "Russian" enigma. It's a wonderful book with wonderful characters that never fails to entertain.

Tulip Fever
Tulip Fever
by Deborah Moggach
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Background, Trite Story, 21 Dec. 2002
This review is from: Tulip Fever (Paperback)
In 1630s Amsterdam, fortunes were made and lost speculating on, of all things, tulip bulbs. In fact, comparisons are sometimes made between the Tulip Crash of 1637 and the stock market crash of 1929. Tulip Fever is an interesting book because of its unique and rather exotic setting, but, in the end, it is just another dull and trite story of seedy adultery.
Twenty-four year old Sophia is married to the hard-working, proud and pious sixty-one year old Cornelis Sandvoort. Although she has never really loved him, she does remain grateful to him for rescuing both her and her mother and sisters from a life of devastation and poverty. She thus submits to her husband's nightly advances, not with passion, but with a certain resignation and an air of obligation to provide him with a child. Trouble arrives when Cornelis decides to have Sophia's portrait painted (in a gorgeous Delft blue silk gown) by the young Jan Van Loos, a handsome and dashing artist.
While Sophia and Jan are attempting to sort out their difficulties with Cornelis, Sophia's maid, Maria, also runs into problems. The girlfriend of a fish seller, Willem, Maria now finds herself pregnant, and, of course, alone. Suffice it to say that a little blackmail ensues between the two women and Sophia ends up concocting a daring plan that involves an elaborate deception and wild tulip speculation. If it succeeds, great, but if it doesn't, only catastrophe will follow.
The author does an excellent job of bringing seventeenth century Amsterdam and its citizens to life. Her details are rich, varied and vivid. History abounds in this novel but it never overwhelms it. In fact, I, myself, would have loved to have learned more about the tulip craze and what made people invest so heavily in something as mundane as an ordinary garden bulb. The short, succinct chapters are interspersed with reproductions of Northern European paintings and epigraphs from essays and literature of the period.
While Tulip Fever is well-written, the problem I had with it is that once stripped of its very interesting setting, the story is just another ho-hum story of adultery and its myriad consequences. I am certainly not against adultery in any book, when adultery comprises an essential element of the plot, but an entire book about adultery can, and does, get more than a little tiresome. Personally, I blame The Bridges of Madison County for the influx of boring adultery books; Tulip Fever is a little better than Bridges, but not much, for in the end, Tulip Fever is simply the story of a vain and beautiful woman who cockolds a perfectly wonderful man whose only sin lies in loving her a bit too much.
I'm not necessarily a fan of highly moral characters or happy endings, either, but Tulip Fever is a novel whose story has been told before, many times, in fact. The background, though, is so wonderful that I couldn't help but wonder what these same characters would be like if the author had only given them a fresh and original story to tell.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 15, 2014 2:52 PM BST

A Suitable Boy
A Suitable Boy
by Vikram Seth
Edition: Paperback

0 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Maori Mysticism, 21 Dec. 2002
This review is from: A Suitable Boy (Paperback)
The Bone People is a wonderful, life-changing book that is rich in character, vivid in detail and encompasses almost the entire range of human emotions. The plot revolves around three lost souls: Kerewin, an artist who can no longer create; Simon, a mute boy who washed up on a deserted beach; and Joe, Simon's almost-stepfather.
At its heart, The Bone People is a romance but it is also a story that takes a look at the dark and serious side of life as well, especially child abuse. No one should be put off by its sometimes depressing subject matter, though. The Bone People is a book that, surprisingly and wonderfully, always manages to celebrate life in all of its complexity. In fact, much of it is lyrically beautiful despite the darkness of some of its themes.
The Bone People is extraordinarily well-written (enough so to garner Hulme a Booker Prize). This is a book with a style and voice all its own, something highly unusual in a first novel. But, unlike some recent novels, The Bone People is never a case of style-over-substance; Hulme weaves her magic with both her engrossing story and her unique, almost stream-of-consciousness style. There are a lot of shifts in time and perspective in this novel but they are always smooth and perfectly placed. Nothing about The Bone People seems jarring or out-of-place. Hulme's prose is almost musical: andante, adagio, allegro, and we find ourselves reading to the cadence she sets.
The Bone People has an extraordinary and wonderful sense of place. Part of this is inherent in the New Zealand setting and the Maori words that decorate the text. The beach scenes are especially well-written and we can really smell the sea and feel the warmth of the sand between our toes.
A few things about The Bone People might seem disjointed at first. The prologue, for example, only makes sense after you finish the book and then reread it. But, to Hulme's credit, it is entitled, "The End At The Beginning," so this should come as no surprise.
The ending, which gives some readers a little trouble, might be more easily understood if we only realize that Hulme is dealing with her characters on an individual basis at this point in the book. Once we realize that, any sense of a deus ex machina ending disappears and all makes perfect sense. It is mystical, yes, but it is a mysticism inherent in the book's story and so it belongs there, rather than being inserted.
The Bone People is a lyrical and beautiful book that takes a sensitive look at some of life's most serious problems. I wish there were more books out there that measured up to the standard it set.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 6, 2009 1:47 PM GMT

A Suitable Boy
A Suitable Boy
by Vikram Seth
Edition: Paperback

8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rich and Panoramic, but Not Perfect, 21 Dec. 2002
This review is from: A Suitable Boy (Paperback)
Vikram Seth's first book, A Suitable Boy, is an epic tale of India, set in the turbulent period following independence and partition. Although extremely long, this is a book that never plods or bogs down. It takes a look at India through the lives of four very extended families, both Hindu and Moslem: the Mehras; the Kapoors, whose most prominent member, the charming if rather feckless Maan Kapoor, falls deeply in love with a Moslem singer and courtesan; the Khans, who are Moslem, and whose son Firoz is a close friend of Maan's, a friendship which eventually results in near-tragedy; and the Chatterjis a family of brilliant and highly Anglicized young men and women: Amit, the poet and novelist, Dipankar the would-be mystic, and Meenakshi and Kakoli, two beautiful and amoral sisters who continually exchange verse couplets with each other in a sort of verbal tennis match of wit. Rounding out the cast of characters are the families' friends, enemies, neighbors, servants, gurus and lovers. The central plot involves a love story that runs through the book like the Ganges.
The most fully-realized and emotionally-engaging character in A Suitable Boy is Mrs. Rupa Mehra. Based loosely on Seth's own grandmother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra has only one mission left in life: to arrange a proper marriage for her youngest daughter, Lata. In other words, she wishes to find Lata "a suitable boy." Mother and daughter are a generation apart in their ideas, but, surprisingly, they eventually do reach an agreement of sorts, and, as they do, they find that they are closer than they had ever imagined.
Mrs. Rupa Mehra, however, is a woman who is determined to take care of her family at any cost, to take care of them even if they do not wish to be taken care of. Seth sums her up this way, "Mrs. Rupa Mehra, torn between solicitude for Pran, concern for Savita, who was due to deliver any day now, and desperate anxiety on behalf of Lata, would have liked nothing better than to have an emotional breakdown. But the press of events would not allow it at present, and she therefore abstained." Mrs. Rupa Mehra, is indeed, a remarkable character, and not one that is soon forgotten. She is vividly drawn and seems to leap off the page with energy, vitality and wit.
A Suitable Boy is straightforward, no-frills storytelling. There are, mercifully, no verbal pyrotechnics here, no extended dream sequences, no magic realism or any of the other literary devices that can be so wonderful but only when employed by an author who really knows what he is doing. Seth wisely sticks to his story and the result is an almost-Victorian rendering. This is one of those books in which the author's "voice" is almost anonymous or silent and that is just as it should be. With a sprawling plot and a large cast of characters, a strong sense of "style" or "voice," sometimes so essential, would have only been an intrusion in a novel such as this.
One of the themes of A Suitable Boy is religious intolerance. In 1952, India was still recovering from the horrors of partition. Muslim Pakistan had separated from the sub-continent and Brahmpur, the invented city where much of the action of A Suitable Boy takes place, is involved in the construction of a Hindu temple adjacent to an existing mosque. In fact, the temple was deliberately erected on that very spot so that when the Muslims gather for their daily prayers and kneel to face Mecca, they will be forced to face Hindu idols as well, idols they, themselves, consider obscene. Seth, himself, has said that he has no sympathy for Hindu fanatics and considers A Suitable Boy to be a plea for religious tolerance in India.
Politics also plays a role in A Suitable Boy and Nehru, himself, makes a few appearances. The sections in which Seth does veer off into politics or religion are less successful than the sections that involve the four families directly. I was tempted to skip many of the more political sections of the book, but didn't. Another minor problem crops up in a certain vagueness about the language the characters are speaking. Although this might not seem to matter, it does matter and matters greatly because the characters, themselves, make much of it. Lata's very pompous brother Arun, for example, often scorns Haresh, Lata's husband-to-be, because his English is less than perfect, although Haresh has studied in England while Arun has never even been there. A delightful bit of irony.
Although not a perfect book, and one that, at times, could stand a little more smoothness, A Suitable Boy is a rich and panoramic look at India during a crucial time in her history as well as being a delightful and incisive novel that is well worth the time one must devote to its more than 1500 pages.

Tess of the D'urbervilles (Penguin Popular Classics)
Tess of the D'urbervilles (Penguin Popular Classics)
by Thomas Hardy
Edition: Paperback

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars At Talbothay's Dairy, 21 Dec. 2002
There really isn't much I can add to what has already been said about this wonderful Thomas Hardy novel. One of the things that really struck me about Tess was the importance of setting and how Hardy relates Tess's emotional state to the setting in which she finds herself. The contrasting settings of Talbothays Dairy and Flintcomb-Ash seem to represent the opposing forces in Tess's own life.
At Talbothays, the air is "clear, bracing and ethereal," the river flows like the pure River of Life," and the atmosphere "set up (Tess's) spirits wonderfully." For Tess, the valley where the dairy is located is akin to Paradise and she feels an emotional high while she is there.
In the dairy, itself, the milkers form "a little battalion of men and women," often "singing songs to entice the cows to produce milk." Everyone works together to bring about a common goal, a common good. At Talbothays, Tess is able to escape the pressures and prejudices of Victorian England. She is at the peak of happiness in her life and falls in love and marries the intellectual and difficult Angel Clare.
It is when her marriage to Angel fails, that Tess moves to the dreary and desolate Flintcomb-Ash. Flintcomb-Ash is in direct contrast to Talbothays. There is not a single "green pasture," nor anything besides "fallow and turnips everywhere" at the "starve-acre place." Here, Tess reaches a new emotional low and her heart is as empty and dark as the setting in which she finds herself. In contrast to the camaraderie at Talbothays, at Flintcomb-Ash, "nobody come near (Tess)" as she stands "enshrouded in her uniform" working "hour after hour." The other workers at Flintcomb-Ash do not fare much better and most are kept busy in the fields in order to earn enough money to simply survive. There is no time for friendship in this place.
Obviously, Hardy was a master at description and the use of setting to emphasize the emotional state of his characters, Tess in particular. Although this book is a masterpiece of sensual language, Tess is also a wonderful example of the use of contrasting settings to convey strong emotional states in a way that mere words alone never could. Tess is a book that should not be overlooked by anyone.

Charming Billy
Charming Billy
by Alice McDermott
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Warm and Wise, 21 Dec. 2002
This review is from: Charming Billy (Paperback)
On the afternoon of Billy Lynch's funeral, his family and friends gather at a New York restaurant to discuss this charismatic man whom "everyone loved" and who, apparently, "died of drink." Questions abound: Why would Billy drink himself to death? How unhappy was he in his marriage to the plain-but-faithful Maeve? And what of Eva, his first love? If Billy had managed to have a future with Eva, would his life have taken a different turn? Was Billy's pathetic outcome just a matter of fate?
The narrator of Charming Billy is a cousin-once-removed of the protagonist, the daughter of Billy's best friend, Dennis, and probably the author's alter ego. Although intelligent and perceptive, the narrator is also rather critical of the pride, prejudice, sexism, racism, faith and clannish behavior she observes in her elders.
Charming Billy is a wonderful story of second and third-generation Irish-Americans, most of whom are blood relatives and live and love and laugh and drink and work for Consolidated Edison in the Queens borough of New York City. In the hands of a lesser author, a book such as Charming Billy might be one in which we would soon lose interest, but McDermott, a wonderful writer, brings Billy to life as well as illuminating the lives of this tightly-knit Irish-American community.
The opening scene, in a restaurant following Billy's funeral, is a brilliant social satire reminiscent of James T. Farrell's stories about Irish-Americans in Chicago, Can All This Grandeur Perish, written in 1937. McDermott, however, is less scathing, more sentimental and humorous, than was Farrell.
The characters in Charming Billy are warmly and well-drawn. They all have names like Dennis and Danny and Kevin and Rosemary and Bridie and Maeve. They are patriotic Americans, to be sure, but still proud of their Irish heritage and some of them even speak with a brogue. Part of the value of this warm and wonderful novel lies in the concern and respect with which McDermott treats past and current Irish-American issues.
McDermott writes in prose so masterful that we can almost hear the delightful Irish lilt in the voices of the speakers. There is a beautifully rhythmic cadence that captures the ebb and flow of conversation perfectly and one that never fails to involve the reader on an intensely emotional level. At the post-funeral dinner, Billy's sister takes the pragmatic view that "Alcoholism isn't a decision, it's a disease, and Billy would have had the disease whether he married the Irish girl or Maeve, whether he'd had kids nor not...Every alcoholic's life is pretty much the same." Billy's bachelor friend and drinking partner, Dan Lynch, defends Billy, taking a more romantic view of Billy's life: "I just don't think it credits a man's life to say he was in the clutches of a disease and that's what ruined him. Say he was too loyal. Say he was disappointed...But give him some credit for feeling, for having a hand in his own fate."
Why did Billy Lynch's life turn out so miserably? Why did this charming and lovable man "die of drink?" That is the central mystery, the question on which this novel of personal revelation turns. As the narrator tries to make sense of Billy's life, she finds herself also investigating both her father's life and her own as well. As she uncovers first one fact and then another, the mystery of "why" and "why not" only deepens.
It cannot be denied that Billy Lynch was a man seduced by the bar. "A world where love...could be spoken of by a hand on the shoulder, a fresh drink placed on the bar, Good to see you, through welling tears, real ones now, Ah, Billy, it's always good to see you. Dark, sparkling, sprinkled with moments when the sound and smell and sight of the place...transported him, however briefly, to a summer night long ago when he was young and life was all promise."
Any sensitive reader will find Charming Billy a wonderful investigation into the motivations and mysteries of life and love as written by one of the best authors of the twentieth century.

The Human Stain
The Human Stain
by Philip Roth
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Unknowable and Elusive Truth, 19 Dec. 2002
This review is from: The Human Stain (Paperback)
The Human Stain completes Philip Roth's thematic American trilogy, a meditation on the historical forces in the latter half of the twentieth century that have destroyed many innocent lives. In this trilogy, Roth takes devastating aim at the "American dream" and its empty promises of prosperity, freedom and everlasting happiness.
The trilogy began with American Pastoral, which some believe to be the high point in Roth's career. American Pastoral explored the effects of late-sixties radicalism on the idyllic life of Swede Levov and his family. I Married a Communist, the second book of the trilogy, was somewhat of a disappointment after the near-perfect American Pastoral, but it was still an engrossing story about the McCarthy era, a portrait of a country in which paranoia had displaced reason, allowing rumor and innuendo to run rampant and ruin lives.
The Human Stain closes the trilogy and brings us to the year 1998. The United States is awash in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and citizens feel the "ecstasy of sanctimony;" they are ready to accuse, blame and punish a very good president for what amounts to nothing more than the sexual peccadilloes almost every person becomes involved in at some time during his life.
On its surface, The Human Stain condemns the political correctness of McCarthyism that effectively turns college campuses away from creative thought and toward middle-aged, white, male oppression at any cost. Does this make The Human Stain a campus satire? Yes, but it is so much more and those who think it is not are simply missing the book's deepest level. It is, at its heart, a sad and poignant statement on the very essence of human nature, a statement that, in Roth's talented hands, becomes utterly convincing. It reminds us of our very unpraiseworthy proclivity to condemn, sully and even find some secret and voluptuous joy in ruining the name of others and delivering their lives into the hands of misery. The real truth, Roth tells us, is both "endless" and unknowable, no matter how much we may wish to label it with our petty accusations. Most of us, however, find this unknowability unacceptable, and so, we leave our own unmistakable "human stain" in our wake.
Coleman Silk, Roth's protagonist in The Human Stain, understands truth's unknowablility all too well. This seventy-one year old professor, who was once a beloved classicist of Athena College, now faces a scandal much like the one faced by President Clinton. And, like Clinton, Silk has done a very good job; his efforts as dean have left their mark of excellence. Athena College is all the better for his having been there, just as the United States is all the better for the Clinton years. Nevertheless, Silk finds himself accused of being both a racist and a misogynist.
Shamed publicly, Silk does exact revenge, but revenge for what? What exactly is the truth in this matter? While those in Silk's community want to see "truth" as a matter of black and white, the novel's narrator, Nathan Zuckerman tells us that "truth," at least in this case, if not in every case, is something that is more nuanced, more grey. And, in a delightfully ironic twist, we learn that Silk has a secret to share, one that makes his accusers turn beet-red with embarrassment rather than with exhilaration.
Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's own alter-ego, has appeared in eight of his novels, including the first two of this trilogy. He is the man in whom the reader must place his trust, or his mistrust. Zuckerman willingly admits that he knows only certain facts about his protagonists, that he must rely on his own innate gift for storytelling to convince us of the things that he, himself, sees so clearly, and that we are certainly free to accept or deny his version as we will.
Roth could have chosen to tell his story from the vantage point of an objective, omniscient narrator and thus allowed us access to the thoughts and feelings of all the characters involved. At first glance, this might seem to have been the wiser choice. A second glance, however, will show us it would have been a travesty, an audacious claim to actually know what the elusive and unknowable truth really is. Telling the story from the point-of-view of the highly subjective Zuckerman is tantamount to an admission of the elusiveness of truth; it is allowing us to form our own opinions without manipulation from either the author or from any of his characters. It is, genius.
If there is any blemish, however slight, in this wonderful literary achievement, it is the character of Les Farley. Les is the now-cliched Vietnam veteran; a man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the weary, misunderstood and maligned soldier who has been abandoned by a country for whom he was willing to give up his very life. Roth uses Farley as a plot device only, and he is one that fails to convince in an otherwise overwhelmingly convincing book.
Roth's prose is, as always, without rival. His Jamesian sentences twist and turn with a vitality and energy that, at times, can seem almost frantic. But Roth never jeopardizes his lucidity; he is a linguistic master who can take us on the most tumultuous ride with an ease and smoothness that other authors can only dream about.
The Human Stain is Philip Roth at the top of his form. It is also American fiction at its very finest and a book that is definitely not to be missed.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue
Girl in Hyacinth Blue
by Susan Vreeland
Edition: Paperback

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Journey Through Time, 19 Dec. 2002
This review is from: Girl in Hyacinth Blue (Paperback)
When a shy, private-school math teacher, Cornelius Engelbrecht, discovers a canvas thought to be a Vermeer, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, a touching and beautifully-written book, begins a fascinating journey back through time to trace the history of the painting.
Engelbrecht's father's dying words had been, "An eye like a blue pearl," referring to the female figure in the painting, that of a young woman in a blue smock and rust-colored skirt, standing beside an open window. Although Cornelius feels captivated by the painting, he also feels a sense of shame at how it came to be in his father's possession.
From the revelation of what, exactly, the elder Engelbrecht did, we then move backward through time from the point of view of one owner to another, all the way back to the painting's point of origin. Each time the painting changes hands, there are high hopes, a time of optimism, until it finally falls into Cornelius' hands and he realizes how it has been tainted by history. The single thread running through each story, the one that connects each character, is this lovely painting, the painting of the Girl in Hyacinth Blue.
One of the most fascinating things about this lovely little book are the details of family life and the history that can be found in each vignette. Like the painting, each "story-within-the-novel" seems to be a frozen moment in time and Vreeland's language in painting her own word portrait is both formal and concise as she offers lush detail and wonderful insight. Much in the book is tender and sad and it truly touches the heart. We feel the pain of these characters and identify with their suffering. They are real people and we can almost believe the painting is real as well.
The central section of the book, and the one that is most fascinating, is called "Morningshine," and focuses on a Dutch family who are isolated in their farmhouse and surrounded by floodwaters. The following passage is indicative of Vreeland's beautiful, but rather spare, prose:
"Saskia opened the back shutters and looked out the upstairs south window early the second morning after the flood. Their farmhouse was an island apart from the world. Vapors of varying gray made the neighboring four farmhouses indistinct, yet there was a shine on the water like the polished pewter of her mother's kitchen back home. Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear, and it was so, she thought. But it wasn't so. And the cow would have to stay upstairs with them until it was so, however long that was, stay upstairs messing the floor and taking up half the room."
The above-passage clearly shows Vreeland's talent for evoking a sense of time and place. This is in evidence throughout the book and makes it highly atmospheric and charged with the energy of the times.
Moments of serendipity are scattered through Girl in Hyacinth Blue as are the harsh realities of the times: hunger, poverty, misery. At one point, in Saskia's story, she is scolded by her husband for feeding their hungry children the seed potatoes he intended to plant in the spring.
This is a fascinating and extremely well-written book, a little masterpiece, just like the Vermeer it creates. It is a book that will appeal to readers of popular literature and those with more literary tastes as well as to art lovers everywhere. Beauty, says Vreeland, is necessary to life. Judging from the beauty of this book, beauty might be just as necessary to life as are next season's seed potatoes.

American Pastoral
American Pastoral
by Philip Roth
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

86 of 97 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Elegy for American Innocence, 19 Dec. 2002
This review is from: American Pastoral (Paperback)
Philip Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for this riveting, quietly horrifying novel that shatters the idyllic illusion of an America that once might have been, but will be no more. American Pastoral is a brilliant commentary on our inability to effectively see beneath the surface of apparent well-being and contentment in others. The first of the "Zuckerman trilogy," (which ends with The Human Stain), American Pastoral recalls and builds on Roth's most accomplished and self-referential fiction of the past.
As the novel opens, Skip Zuckerman, the childless, unattached, first-person narrator of the trilogy has a chance meeting with a boyhood hero at a baseball game. This hero is Swede Levov, an older man who is still, impossibly blonde, blue-eyed and youthful; a legend within his predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Swede is the very embodiment of "America" and all that "being American" stands for. He is, Skip is sure, incapable of living anything but the perfect, and perfectly rewarding, life.
Swede's brother, Jerry, was Skip's best friend, so when Swede asks for a meeting with Skip, Skip is a little puzzled but not all that surprised. Swede, however, doesn't ask anything specific of Skip, but talks of his sons and his memories of Newark before and during World War II. This meeting, though, is pivotal to the novel's central question and its meaning soon becomes crystal clear.
As the novel progresses, Skip attends his high school reunion and, while making note of the various deficiencies shared by the sixtyish men and women in attendance, becomes convinced that no human being ever really knows or understands another. He is depressed by all the conversation about cancer, divorce and the various problems associated with growing older. It is Jerry, though, Swede's brother, who tells Skip the one thing that will disillusion more than any other.
Roth's brilliance as well as his masterful and well-crafted prose draw us into American Pastoral and allow us to participate in the mundane life experiences of its characters as if those experiences were our very own. We live through school reunions, failed marriages, duplicity and waste as Skip proceeds to a more detailed examination of the life of Swede Levov.
Swede's life, Skip finds out, was nothing like he had imagined it would be. Obsessed, Skip begins a novel that focuses on the life of Swede Levov. Although Skip is making up a lot of his book as he goes along, the story is nonetheless true and it is a story that will resonate painfully with anyone who has ever felt alone, in control, out of control, or who has thought that he or she knew all about someone they have cared about deeply. As the facts about Swede Levov's life slowly unfold, as his secrets are unearthed, the glossy veneer of satisfaction, contentment and perfection begins to slip away from his life. As the man behind the persona is fully revealed, we come to realize, with Skip Zuckerman, that in anyone's life, one torment can, and often does, lead to more and more agony until its inevitability is appalling.
American Pastoral is more of an impassioned dialogue with its readers than a convincing and linear story. This is not a warm and comforting book that will leave a glow in your heart after the last page. In fact, its most convincing and most powerfully-written passages are those in which Swede and Skip discuss and reflect upon human nature's congenital loneliness.
American Pastoral is a painful book; it is a book that explores a dark and lonely side of human nature. But it is masterfully written, in prose that is spare and elegant and, above all, authentic. At its heart, American Pastoral is a gorgeous elegy for the American Dream; a funeral ode to an innocence that has long since passed away.
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