Friday, March 20, 2020

Greg Gilbert - Shelter in Place with Books

Because many of us are in the hunt for good reads, I’m offering mini-reviews for your consideration. While not listed in any particular order, these are books that I recommend. Shelter in place with books!

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Exhalation by Ted Chiang. Science Fiction 368 pages. Short stories of varying length. Intelligent, original considerations of time travel, free will, and fate. The stories are nearly devoid of rising action but are thoughtfully developed, nuanced, and offer depths of thinking that, for me, break new ground. One story, “The Great Silence,” posits that Puerto Rican parrots offer us a beautiful opportunity for interspecies communication. Exhalation recalls works by Borges and Calvino.

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A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende. Historical Fiction 289 pages. Begins in Spain, 1938, with the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, prison camps, and follows refugees who flee to France and evacuate to Chile. The book brings us into contact with Pinochet, Salvador Allende, the poet Neruda, and provides the epic story of a long life. It offers treatises on growing old, being in love, political intrigue, and personal sacrifice. While slightly facile –as a Kirkus Review says—it offers a historical study that is informative, engaging, and solid.

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The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali. Historical Fiction 265 pages. This is a romantic story and so much more. Within this small book, the reader experiences the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh by the U.S. backed Shah while following the lives of two star crossed lovers. The story contrasts American culture with Persian and centers on the depth of one’s culture and how impermanent it can be. This too is a story of how America’s cinematic image is largely a thin facade over a more facile reality.  The narration telegraphs what is coming without giving too much away and offers an artful dance as it curls back onto itself to bring past events forward. The only flaw, for my taste, is an overarching romantic sentimentality that simultaneously rings true for any reader who has experienced a lost love and is slightly too saccharine for any reader who appreciates the depth of an enduring relationship. This is also a book that demonstrates how political passions can overwhelm reason and be co-opted by manipulative powerbrokers. The setting of a stationary shop at the center of the novel is a synecdoche for a resilient love of reading, writing, and culture – as well as a frame for a human frailty that, to borrow from Dylan Thomas, is like “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”

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A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. Historical Fiction 409 pages. This book is framed by the bombing of London and the RAF bombing raids on one end and the ultimate tale of one long life. The narrative moves forward and backward in time, says what will happen while referencing the past, so that the complexity of this retrospective is as interwoven as life itself. This is a unique plot device in the hands of a master. Characters are complex and thoroughly revealed through their actions. There is minimal plot in terms of mystery and resolution but lives are lived, particularly the central character, Teddy. One is content to follow the in’s and out’s of authentically drawn individuals. I read everything by Atkinson. She is a writer’s writer.

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The Face: A Time Code by Ruth Ozeki. Zen meditation 86 pages. Ozeki provides an intimate three hour meditation while viewing herself in a mirror. Her features are described in terms of physicality, personal history, cultural considerations, ancestry, fears and vanities, and accented by lessons on Zen, Noh acting, mask making, the three marks of existence found in Wabi-sabi (suffering, impermanence, and no-self) and the bringing of life to the mask, yūgen. Ozeki’s work is personal and describes her exploration of self and no-self. While her writing is not didactic or vain, it provides an example of a very human quest for enlightenment that uses the mask of self as a means of seeing beyond the mask. This is a beautiful little book. Her fictions rank among my favorite novels.

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An additional recommendation not reviewed here is Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. The third installment, The Mirror & the Light (784 pages) just came out, and I am devouring it, as I did the first two. It is no exaggeration to say that Mantel is a brilliant writer. LA Times book reviewer Mary Ann Gwinn writes that this installment is as good as the first two and is “a masterpiece.” The other books in this trilogy are Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies

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Greg Gilbert is the author of Afflatus.

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  1. Greg, I can tell you're a literary rather than a foreign affairs specialist...Evidence? The "Shaw" of Iran!!! (btw, this is Cathy, not Bob!)

    1. Damn. Shah-nuff. I'll see if the soos chef can repair. :(