This installment: a clutch of novels: music and race; an amazing sea voyage; people who think they’re gifted; noir orphans with a Zen link; a well-fixed orphan with a ditzy guardian; and the mysteries of translation.
The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers
This was highly recommended by a fellow chorister but I put it off till now. 600+ pages and such intense, far-reaching themes: music, race, quantum physics—all colliding and regrouping. From the union of “the bird and the fish:” a German Jewish professor and a black, musical wife in a time when such relationships were de facto illegal come three siblings. Jonah’s an extraordinary classical singer, Joseph becomes his accompanist, and little Ruthie, possibly the most talented, ends up in the thick of Black Power activism. Jonah calls his brother “Mule,” for mulatto, and they’re ill-fitting in both black and white society. Should a black man be spending his talent in Europe which is more receptive than his own country? Powers brings in incredible historical scope, through wars and domestic unrest, often suggested by the popular song titles of the era. The book is intricate, exalting, sometimes exhaustive or exhausting, but oh, so rich.
Archipelago by Monique Roffey
It took me a while to get into this, though I loved her The White Woman on the Green Bicycle. But I’m glad I kept climbing aboard because it took me on an amazing voyage. Gavin’s life is in tatters after a flood in Trinidad killed his infant son and plunged his wife into a comatose depression. He hates his job, the rebuilt house gives him the willies, his 6 year old daughter Ocean has recurring nightmares. So on impulse he flees with her in his old sturdy sailboat, the Romany, and has challenging adventures galore. They end up in the Galapagos, finished with sailing but ready to reclaim their lives. Shades of Moby-Dick (they’re actually accompanied by a white whale briefly) and Darwin too—the beauties and despoliation of the natural world. Vivid and atmospheric.
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
The setting: a fabled camp for teenagers in the ‘60s, artistic and free form. A girl who considers herself a misfit arrives as Julia but leaves as Jules, now embedded in a lively cohort whom she hopes will be friends for life: Ash and Goodman, sister and brother, very rich; Ethan, a homely, brilliant cartoonist; Jonah, son of a famous folk singer. Where will they all end up? Where will their talents and their passions lead them? Oh, do we find out. There’s some fame, some fortune, but lots of misfires through the decades with marriages, alliances, betrayals, and a Terrible Secret. Very engrossing, especially since I went to such a camp. And guess what: being touted as gifted from a young age isn’t necessarily a gift.
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
Lionel, an orphan, is recruited by Frank Minna to do odd jobs along with three other boys. They become Minna’s Men and it’s obviously shady business. A car service with no cars available? A detective agency? Moving lots of goods around, for sure. Lionel has Tourette’s and Lethem uses his verbal eruptions to fine, poetic, hilarious effect—an explosive stream of consciousness. When Frank is bumped off, Lionel is determined to make things right, which leads him to a bizarre midtown zendo, and then to Maine. Peculiar, antic, original, and I loved the lugubrious formal language of the high-up Italian thugs, worthy of Mortimer Snerd.
Fin and Lady by Catherine Schine
Fin, named for that word that appears when a French book is over, is abruptly moved from rural Connecticut after his parents are killed in a car crash. He’s 11 and ends up in Greenwich Village with Lady, a half-sister he barely knows. What an unlikely, feckless guardian she proves to be, with plenty of money but not much of a life-plan. Three suitors hang around. A wise black servant, Mabel, provides some stability and common sense, but between Lady’s dizzying whims and the ‘60’s zeitgeist, it’s quite a challenge for Fin. Lady eventually flees to Capri, a kind of never-never land, and finally falls in love. Not wisely, of course. By now Fin has grown up some and they have a (shall -we –say) interesting summer there when she finally sends for him. There’s a somewhat mysterious narrator throughout and by the end we find out who. Books in which the characters have unlimited funds sometimes make me suspicious but there’s a sweet fairy tale quality leavened with eccentricity that made it delightful read.
The Translator by Nina Schuyler
Hanne’s been deeply wrapped up in translating a novel from the Japanese, obsessed with trying to portray the essence of the main character. She bangs her head in a fall and finds herself left with only one language, Japanese. So she goes off to Japan with the hope of meeting the man on whom the character in the novel was based, a famed actor in the Noh tradition. She discovers the author hates her translation, ends up visiting the actor and finds some fascinating, disturbing correspondences between them. The actor's career is stalled because he no longer feels a passion for it; hers may be over completely and then what? She’s also been estranged from her daughter Brigitte whom she sent off to boarding school at 14 when her husband died. Yes, she regains her other languages, and yes, she makes a very moving reconciliation with Brigitte in India. But along the way she has to look at what shaped her and the tricky nature of translation itself. Thoughtful, often elegiac in tone.
Back next Monday.