Category Archives: Historical Fiction

Midnight’s Children – Book Two, Part B by Salman Rushdie

Midnight’s Childrenby Salman Rushdie

Random House, New York, 2006 (original published in 1981)

From my TBR pile.  Winner of the Booker Prize and the Booker of Booker’s Prize.  I am reading this  novel as part of a group read organized by Arti Meredith and Mrs. B.  It is wonderful sharing thoughts.

The second part of Book Two focuses on exile and migration, on war and politics, both in the insular world of Saleem Sinai  and the larger world of India and Pakistan.  The Midnight’s Children Conference suffers from the same divisiveness that shatters the sub-continent.

     …..Children, however magical, are not immune to their parents; and as the prejudices and world-views of adults began to take over their minds, I found children from Maharashtra loathing Gujaratis, and fair-skinned northerners reviling Dravidian “blackies”; there were religious rivalries; and class entered our councils.  The rich children turned up their noses at being in such lowly company; Brahmins began to feel uneasy at permitting their thoughts to touch the thoughts of untouchables; while, among the low-born, the pressures of poverty and Communism were becoming evident…and, on top of all this, there were clashes of personality, and a hundred squalling rows which are unavoidable in a parliament composed entirely of half-grown brats.  From page 292.

The world mirrored in the thoughts and actions of children.   I greatly admire Rushdie’s ability to focus in on Saleem’s story and then move out, as if with a camera, to capture all that is happening in and around the Indian subcontinent.  Saleem’s  family contains love and betrayal, eventually even murder.    Saleem lives within this drama as he grows into an awkward young man.  The family is exiled to Pakistan and Saleem finds himself witness to revolution,  followed shortly by war.

     Midnight has many children; the offspring of Independence were not all human.  Violence, corruption, poverty, generals, chaos, greed and pepperpot…I had to go into exile to learn that the children of midnight were more varied that I— even I—had dreamed.  from page 333.

And then there are endings.  In the final chapters of Book Two,  in a conflict that seems a farce,  Saleem looses many members of his family.

     I am trying to stop being mystified.  Important to concentrate on good hard facts.  But which facts?  One week before mu eighteenth birthday, on August 8th, did Pakistani troops in civilian clothing cross the cease-fire line in Kashmir  and infiltrate the Indian sector, or did they not?  In Delhi, Prime Minister Shastri announced “massive infiltration…to subvert the state:; but here is Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, with his riposte:  “We categorically deny any involvement in the rising against tyranny by the indigenous people of Kashmir”.  From page 387.

Saleem’s rants about the sheer insanity of the Indo-Pakistani war bring to mind the politics and propaganda that infuse all wars.  They also remind me that Kashmir is still in suffering a territorial dispute, between Pakistan, India and China.

So on to Book Three and the wrap up of our read-along.  I can’t wait to see what my co-readers have to say about the rest of Midnight’s Children.

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Filed under Booker, Historical Fiction, India, Salman Rushdie, Thoughts

West of Here by Jonathan Evison

West of Here by Jonathan Evison

Algonquin Books , Chapel Hill, 2011

Borrowed from my local library.

A grand, historic novel based in the imaginary town of Port Bonita (a stand-in for Port Angeles) on the Olympic Peninsula, West of Here follows many characters, some native, some non-native.  There are the colonizers and colonized, the industrialists, explorers and dreamers.  The novel moves between the late 1800’s , a period of exploration, expansion and the decimation of local native tribes, and the early 21st century,  where a once thriving economy based on logging and fish processing is at an ebb, poverty is rampant and the massive Elwha dam is about to be removed.

This is a place I am familiar with.   Evison does an admirable job portraying the land and creating the atmosphere of both time periods, but it often feels like too much, too many story-lines dropped like a stone, too many characters never fleshed out.  Maybe the author’s intention was to write a novel as dense and massive as the forests,  mountains and the waters that make up this part of Washington state but it never really came together for me, there were an awful lot of loose ends.

There are parts of this novel that I loved.  The descriptions of James Mather’s expedition in 1889, up the valley of the Elwha, in an attempt to reach the Quinault.  Certain characters,  Eva Lambert – budding journalist and pregnant free-thinker,  Dave Krigstadt – fish packing, pot smoking cryptozoologist and the Klallam doppelgängers – Thomas Jefferson King and Curtis.

And the land itself, the Elwha River, before being dammed and the surrounding, seemingly endless forests.  Trees so big it’s hard to imagine how men cut them down. The rugged forbidding faces of Mount Constance, Mount Deception and Mount Olympus.  Evison used many historic documents as references for his work and it shows.  All is all, I think that those interest in the history of the Pacific northwest will enjoy this novel.  And to add to the story the Elwha dam was removed last fall.  The salmon will return…

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Filed under America, Historical Fiction, Thoughts

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie – Book Two

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Random House, New York, 2006

From my TBR pile.

I am reading this wonderful novel as part of a group read organized by Arti Meredith and Mrs. B.  Heartfelt thanks to them for allowing others to join in.

We are reading Book Two in two parts, the first up section to the chapter titled The Kolynos Kid.  Our hero,  Saleem Sinai, writes his history, reads it to his plump and beloved Padma, all the time echoing events that rumble through the turbulent mix of cultures and religions that was India in the mid-decades of the twentieth century.  And we are slowly introduced to Saleem’s special talent, his ability to read the minds of all of his country’s  Midnight’s Children.

     Let me sum up: at a crucial point in the history of our child-nation, at a time when Five Year Plans were being drawn up and elections were approaching and language marchers were fighting over Bombay, a nine-year-old boy named Saleem Sinai acquired a miraculous gift.  despite the many vital uses to which his abilities could have been put to use by his impoverished, underdeveloped country, he chose to conceal his talents, frittering them away on inconsequential voyeurism and petty cheating.  This behavior – not, I confess, the behavior of a hero – was the direct result of a confusion in his mind, which inevitably muddled up morality – the desire to do what is right – and popularity – the rather more dubious desire to do what is approved of.  Fearing parental ostracism, he suppressed the news of his transformation;  seeking parental congratulations, he abused his talents at school.  This flaw in his character can partially be excused on the grounds of his tender years; but only partially.  Confused thinking was to bedevil much of his career.

I can be quite tough in my self-judgements when I choose.  from page 196.

As I read this vast  novel I am continually receiving questioning looks from Mr G.  It is because I am giggling to myself or making odd appreciative noises at Rushdie choice of words.   Saleem’s childhood is a mash-up of old and new, a perfect mirror for his young country.  I can not wait to see what happens to him and the rest of Midnight’s Children.

     So among the midnight children were infants with powers of transmutation, flight, prophecy and wizardry…but two of us were born on the stroke of midnight.  Saleem and Shiva, Shiva and Saleem, nose and knees and knees and nose…to Shiva, the hour had given the gifts of war (of Rama, who could draw the undrawable bow, of Arjuna and Bhima; the ancient prowess of Kurus and Pandavas united, unstoppable in him!)…and to me, the greatest talent of all – the ability to look into the hearts and minds of men.  From page 229.

Reading Midnight’s Children reminds me of a wonderful production of the Mahabharata directed by Peter Brooks that I saw years ago.  It has been released on DVD.  See it if you can.

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Filed under Booker, Historical Fiction, India, Salman Rushdie, Thoughts

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011

From my library hold list.

A debut novel that takes place in Rome in 1978, a time when families of Russian Jews were passing through a gap in the Iron Curtain.  The city was  filled with immigrants waiting for visas to their chosen destination.  For three generations of the Kranansky family what begins as a journey to America ends up, after six months of waiting,  as a journey to Canada.

There is Alex and his brother Karl, Alex’s new wife Polina and Karl’s wife Rosa and their two sons who, along with grandparents Emma and Samuil, have traveled from Latvia to Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and Vienna finally arriving in Rome.  Samuil is the one causing the delay.  A former Red Guard, he suffers from many ailments, and Canada is not taking any invalids.  Israel might, but that is not an option for Samuil, or for Karl and Alex.    As the novel unfolds we learn some of the back story for all of these characters but the most enjoyable parts for me was the experiences within and around the migrant community in Rome.

Praised by the New Yorker as one of the best “20 under 40”, Bezmozgis is expert at the portrayal of loss while maintaining a balanced sense of humor.  And we see the hopes and dreams these people carry with them into their new lives.  Somewhat autobiographical, this author truely loves his characters.  Parts of the novel drifted out of focus for me but on the whole I enjoyed it.  I plan on reading the author’s collection, Natasha and Other Stories, sometime in the near future.

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Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, Historical Fiction, LiteraryFiction, Thoughts

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie – Book 1

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Random House, New York, 2006

From my TBR pile.

I am taking part in a read-along organized by Mrs B, Arti andMeredith.  We are taking four months to read the book that won the Booker of Booker’s prize twice.    After reading Book One, I wanted to jump ahead and continue reading but decided to take the time to digest the first section.

In our den we have several wall hangings, presents from a friend who visited India and Nepal.  They are made up of pieces of cloth and imbedded with bits of mirrors.  When the sun hits them they bounce light all over the room.

Midnight’s Children is a book made of words like bits of  mirror, reflecting the time before and after India gained independence from Britain and was partitioned into the states of India, West and East Pakistan.  The story is told by Saleem Sinai.  Each evening he writes his scattered thoughts and reads them to a woman he works with, Padma, who is illiterate and seems a bit grumpy and slow-witted.  It is Padma who helps bring Saleem’s thoughts into focus as he recalls his family history from the time before he was born.

Midnight’s Children reminds me of a twisted version of 1000 and One Nights, a comparison I’m sure the author is tired of,  and I love it.  Rushdie’s mix of tumbling language, history and magical realism is like looking through a kaleidoscope, where the image is split into a thousand parts but somehow comes together beautifully.

Book One covers the story of Saleem’s family up until the time of his birth, August 15th, 1947, which is also the exact time of the creation of the independent State of India.  By telling his story Saleem also tells of India’s struggles for independence, the bigotry between classes and religions and the lasting impact of the British Raj.  All this is told with grace,  humor and a burning coal of anger at its core.  Anger at the thick-headed greed of politicians, thieves and governments.

I find it difficult expressing  my admiration for Salman Rushdie’s abilities with language, with story-telling.  I can not wait to move on to Book Two.

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Filed under Booker, Historical Fiction, India, Read-Along, Salman Rushdie, TBR Double Dare

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

Vintage, New York, 2001

From my TBR pile.  On the short list for the 2000 Booker prize.  I am reading along with Wendy’s Literary Novels from my Stack personal challenge when I can.  February is Man Booker Prize Month.

An elegant novel about memory, When We Were Orphans is a slow, controlled and engaging mystery.

Christopher Banks, this novel’s first person narrator,  is a famous detective in London.  Orphaned at a young age, sent from Shanghai to England, his one desire is to become a great detective.  Cool, reticent and self-controlled, he attains his goal, all the time remaining distant from those around him.   Twenty years later he is determined to return to the Shanghai and solve the case of his parents’ disappearances.  When he does return to the far east things are not at all how he remembers them.

Banks holds himself at a distance, from the reader,  from friends and from colleagues.  He does not allow life’s possibilities to distract him from his goal.  He lives at a remove, from his emotions and his personal history.  This gives the novel a chill, it feels like a ghost story.  In fact it is haunted, by Christopher’s past, his missing parents, the intrigues of early twentieth-century Shanghai.

I found When We Were Orphans difficult in places, maybe because I found it hard to empathize with Christopher Banks.  It will not be my  favorite Ishiguro novel, but I am continually awed by his style, use of restraint and use of language.  He is one of those authors who constantly surprises me and I plan to read all of his work.

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The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

Riverhead Books, New York, 2011

From my library TBR list.  This book has been short listed for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize.

Born in 1933, Jamil Ahmad spent time in the Pakistani Civil Service.  He served in the frontier province, traveling through the “Badlands” between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Ahmad is a traditional story-teller.  He values and love these lands and the tribal people who live in and travel across them.

The Wandering Falcon is a small book made up of stories.  Stories you might hear sitting at an old man’s feet or around a fire with many relatives.  I have to believe that this still happens somewhere.  That people tell stories to the young, to each other.

A young couple runs away from their tribe and takes shelter with a group of soldiers.  They build a life and have a son.  Eventually the head man of their tribe comes looking for them and they run away, only to be killed in the desert, their son left to starve. This boy is Tor Baz, the “Black Falcon” and he grows up to wander the land.  The stories follow him from tribe to tribe, from youth to adolescence to manhood.

The area where Pakistan and Afghanistan meet is inhospitable.  It’s people are traditional, tribal, most are nomadic, following their herds through summer and winter, over open pasture, through difficult mountain passes.  They live a harsh, honor-bound life. Many of their beliefs and traditions clash with those of the west.  They are being forced to change.

Jamil Ahmed, through this small collection of linked stories, as written the late 20th and early 21st century history of this land.  The closing of borders, wars fought for territories, western influence, these pressures and others force a people who have lived in certain ways for centuries to change those ways over night.  Ahmed’s stories bring this land, these people, to life.

I enjoyed this book, loved Jamil’s traditional story-telling.  I am sad for these people, for their struggles, for being caught in a time of great change.

Other reviews:

Farm Lane Books Blog

S. Krishna’s Books

Winstonsdad’s Blog

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Filed under Afghanistan, Historical Fiction, Pakistan, Review

Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman

Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman

Picador, New York, 2008

From my TBR stack.  On the short list for the 2009 Orange Prize.

It is difficult taking a piece of history and turning it to fiction.  Helen Feldman has done that by taking a racial motivated  event from 1930’s America and using it to create a powerful historical novel.

In 1931 nine black teens ranging in age from 12 to 19,  jump a train traveling from Tennessee to Alabama, end up in a brawl with some white men and are accused of raping two white women.  The arrests and subsequent trials of the Scottsboro Boys drew national attention.

Scottsboro is told in two voices.  One, Alice Whittier, a reporter from New York City sent to cover the initial trial, is a whip-smart, well-educated white women from New York City with a trust fund. Distanced from her family and involved in a sexual relationship with her boss she is thrilled to be offered the story.  The other, Ruby Bates, is one of the accusers, manipulated by her “friend” Victoria Price and considered “poor white trash” by members of her own community.

The case is a magnet for the national media and for the Communist Party who hope to recruit more members from the south.  The C.P. sends lawyers from International Labor Defense to stand as defense attorneys for the accused.

Knowing some of the history of this case, including the fact that the crimes did not occur, does not detract from Scottsboro.  Feldman includes many of the  actual participants in her novel, using quotes from articles, reports and interviews as epigraphs for each chapter.  She gives voice to the politicians, reporters,  lawyers and defendants.

Ruby and Alice are central to Scottsboro but historical elements of the 30’s America add strength to the novel.  The descriptions of Jim Crow lynchings,  prison environments , the rampant racism, anti-Semitism and sexism pervasive throughout the country and the political maneuvering by the courts, the government and the Communist party are woven throughout and, for me, add to the sense of historical truth.

Feldman also includes other pieces of 1930’s American  history.  The depression, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Hooverville and The Bonus Army all have a place here.  Alice tells the story from the future, reflecting on all that has happened to the country, to the 9 defendants, to Ruby and in her own life since that fateful train ride from Chattanooga.

I enjoyed this novel and would like to read more about Scottsboro, including  Remembering Scottsboro by James A. Miller and Stories of Scottsboro by James E. Goodman.

3 Comments

Filed under Historical Fiction, OrangePrize, Review, TBR Double Dare

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Riverhead Books, New York, 2011

From my TBR pile.  This novel was long-listed for the 2006 Orange Prize.

A novel of World War 11 written so that it takes the reader back in time from 1947 to 1941.   Waters gives us the stories of five characters living through that war in London.  The characters connect and intertwine with each other in many ways, some of which are unknown to each of them.

The four women and one man struggle with personal choices, family pressure and society.  Three of the women are entangled in a love-affair, one is helped through a life-changing event by sheer accident and the young man, imprisoned for a crime the reader can only guess at, is connected by blood and history to the others.

Sarah Waters’ writing brings the thoughts and emotions of her characters to life.   Dialogue tells the stories, descriptive language creates the atmosphere.  Sometimes not muchseems to be happening but inner dialogue builds up personal histories, some  filled with happiness, some with regret and a  sense of longing.  Longing for the past, for different choices and always there is the war.

     He lost his footing, then righted himself and went on without speaking.  Partridge was coughing because of the dust.  Mickey was rubbing grit from her eyes.  The chaos was extraordinary.  Every time Kay put down her feet, things cracked beneath them, or wrapped themselves around her ankles: broken window-glass mixed up with broken mirrors, crockery, chairs and tables, curtains, carpets,  feathers from a cushion or a bed, great splinters of wood. The wood surprised Kay, even now: in the days before the war she’d imagined houses were made more or less solidly, of stone – like the last Little Pig’s, in the fairy tale.  What amazed her, too, was the smallness of the piles of dirt and rubble to which even large buildings were reduced.  This house had three intact floors to it, and hour before;  the heaps of debris its front had were no more than six or seven feet high.  She supposed that houses, after all – like the lives that were lived in them – were mostly made of space.  It was the spaces, in fact, that counted, rather than the bricks.  From page 172.

These characters live in a time when their choices, how they live their lives, who they love, put them in danger.  Waters’ sensitivity and attention to detail brings the fullness of their  lives to the reader without being overly dramatic.  This is a brave and beautiful book.

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Bohemian Girl by Terese Svoboda

Bohemian Girl by Terese Svoboda

Bison Books, Lincoln and London, 2011

Borrowed from my library.

I was introduced to  Bohemian Girl on Shadow, Knife, Pen… and was intrigued by Svoboda’s  connections to Willa Cather and the fact that she stole the title of Cather’s famous story for her novel.  That said, Svoboda had me with the first sentence.

Pa lost me on a bet he could not break, nor would, having other daughters to do for, and other debts besides.

Twelve-year-old Harriet is given to a Pawnee Indian to settle a debt.  Hobbled at the ankles  she carries sand and stone, a slave forced to build an earthen mound.  Eventually she escapes and sets off to find her father running into strange characters along the way.   What a voice this girl has, stumbling through the dark history of the American West,  searching for her Pa.

 I have no fear now.  The Indian gave me so much fear at the end, it came in buckets until I have no choice but to drink it down and be Bohemian.

I walk right into the blue of this country’s sky, the color of the glass that Bohemians keep one or two bottles of in every house.  If I had any sense I would change my skin and clothes to this blue so no Indian could find me, new or old.  I could be a walking blue and lost to the eyes of all…  From pages 32-33.

It is the 1860’s,  a time in American history rich with the horrors of the Civil War,  the uprooting and slaughter of Indian tribes.  Harriet finds herself wandering east, ends up with an orphaned boy and is rescued from prison by a pair of balloonists.   She stumbles into a small town and abandoned by her fellow travelers ends up the owner of  a small mercantile,  befriends a Jewish peddler and hides run-away slaves.  And always tries to hold on to her past as the dark, wild country changes around her.

In Bohemian, there is a word for the air quivering over ripening cherry trees at noon.   On my tongue tip.  How I long for those trees or even an apple or a plum.  I stop sanding my ankle with river bottom mud and hold still, sure the Bohemian words will arrive.  From page 116.

It is hard not to keep quoting from Bohemian Girl, it is a strange and lyrical book.   I loved it,  and I am glad to have been introduced to Svoboda’s writing.

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Filed under Historical Fiction, Review