Review: Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

21859192Blurb:

Recipient of the Grand Prix of the Academie Francaise, Wind, Sand and Stars is unsurprassed in capturing the grandeur, danger, and isolation of flight. Its exciting account of air adventure – through the treacherous passes of the Pyrenees, above the Sahara, along the snowy ramparts of the Andes – combined with lyrical prose and the soaring spirit of a philosopher, make this book one of the most popular works ever written about flying.

Review:

The steadily growing stream of birth and marriage announcements on my Facebook feed has led me to rethink these “steps” that most people take each passing year. I used to think (and still sometimes do when I’m feeling unsure or cynical) that this seemingly prewritten way of living, of societal norms pushing us forward, was depressing evidence for a lack of creativity. But lately I see these steps not as predetermined chains on a pair of manacles we never knew we were wearing, but as a climb up a mountain or a neverending game of “I dare you.” I dare you to try more, to do something different, to remember or to learn how best to live.

We only have one first. A first time riding in a plane, a first time seeing the ocean, a first time eating an orange, a first time falling in love. It happens and it finishes in the same moment. A simultaneous life and death that will slowly kill us if we don’t realize it.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wants us to realize it. To do so he shares exquisite moments where he realized it during his career as an Aéropostale pilot in Northern Africa and South America. He’s lying atop a pebbled ledge in the Sahara Desert and finds a meteorite and knows he’s the only soul who has ever seen this rock. It’s a first, but one that he wants us to savor. He’s in the desert in Libya, three days without water, and he sees fantastic mirages—they are false, but they are something new only once, and he wants us to appreciate that.

What he wants is neither that new nor that radical. By recounting his memories he wants to inspire us to unlock our hands from our keyboards, to put our wallets back in our pockets, to unleash the shopkeepers from their shops, to look in a mirror, to look at each other, and to recognize something.

In English this humanist adventure tale is titled Wind, Sand, and Stars, evocative but lacking. The French title, Terre des hommes, or Land of Men, is better. There is no wind, there is no sand, there are no stars, if we are not there to observe them, or even more, to appreciate them. Life is a battle to stay awake. And according to Saint-Exupéry, it doesn’t have to be much of a battle if we just look around every once and a while. Whether we’re flying across the Andes in a snowstorm straining to find the light of a house and human soul below or whether we simply open our eyes while walking down the street, we can win the battle. Being awake will no longer mean adhering to a game of “I dare you,” a set of steps leading to more, more, more to stop us from getting bored. Everyday can have a first, every person can be awake, if we remember every single moment that we’re alive on this sphere in the universe.

5 stars out of 5

Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

870775Blurb:

Eva never really wanted to be a mother – and certainly not the mother of the unlovable boy who murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and a much-adored teacher who tried to befriend him, all two days before his sixteenth birthday. Now, two years later, it is time for her to come to terms with marriage, career, family, parenthood, and Kevin’s horrific rampage in a series of startlingly direct correspondences with her estranged husband, Franklin. Uneasy with the sacrifices and social demotion of motherhood from the start, Eva fears that her alarming dislike for her own son may be responsible for driving him so nihilistically off the rails.

Review:

Today is an era of impermanence. The clothes we buy can be returned to the store with a receipt. The stories we hear on the radio enter our ears and disappear into the ether. The grudges we hold are thrown away with a mere “Sorry.” But I suppose there is one thing we can’t take back, for which there can be no redos or second thoughts. For women at least, a child is forever.

That’s where protagonist Eva finds herself after the birth of Kevin, her ambivalently desired son. From the moment he refuses to nurse from her breast, she wants to give him back. But she recognizes, of course, that this is impossible and would brand her as “evil” by most of the population.

The entire book is composed of retrospective epistles written in the aftermath of a school shooting committed by teenage Kevin. But it mostly grapples around the tense relationship between mother and son, asking, “Is Kevin difficult to love just because Kevin is difficult to love? Or is Kevin difficult to love because his mother doesn’t love him enough/properly/unconditionally/etc?”

Unconditional love has always scared me a little bit. Why should anyone deserve such power? I remember asking an ex-boyfriend question after question, “If I did this slightly horrible thing, would you stay with me? And if I did this slightly more horrible thing, would you still be with me? Okay, and what about if I did this truly truly awful unforgiveable thing? What about then?” He hated this “game” but I loved it. I wanted to know where the line in the sand was drawn. And maybe Kevin and Eva’s entire relationship is the attempt to draw a line in the sand, all the way up to killing several kids in a high school.

So mothers can’t get a redo for a child, and I guess most would also argue that another everlasting thing is murder. Death is forever, and the trigger puller is forever. Except what Shriver excellently shows here is the mania surrounding these mass shootings. His mother is not forgiven for her alleged maternal lapses; Kevin, however, is forgiven by his captivated audience. The reasons for Kevin’s massacre remain opaque. But it’s something about the desire to write his own story, to become an actor. Stricken by affluenza, he wants more and he wants the unknown.

We readers are complicit in consuming this story. But Shriver writes so well, choosing the perfect anecdotes to highlight Kevin’s developing killer psyche, that it’s impossible not to. We Need To Talk About Kevin tells you what will happen from the get-go. Yet it is still so complicated and defies simple understanding. And somehow this story about a mother hating her son, a son hating his mother, and this same son hating the world and thus destroying it is one of the greatest tales of forgiveness that I’ve ever read.

5 stars out of 5

Review: Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

21859192Blurb:

Recipient of the Grand Prix of the Academie Francaise, Wind, Sand and Stars is unsurprassed in capturing the grandeur, danger, and isolation of flight. Its exciting account of air adventure – through the treacherous passes of the Pyrenees, above the Sahara, along the snowy ramparts of the Andes – combined with lyrical prose and the soaring spirit of a philosopher, make this book one of the most popular works ever written about flying.

Review:

The steadily growing stream of birth and marriage announcements on my Facebook feed has led me to rethink these “steps” that most people take each passing year. I used to think (and still sometimes do when I’m feeling unsure or cynical) that this seemingly prewritten way of living, of societal norms pushing us forward, was depressing evidence for a lack of creativity. But lately I see these steps not as predetermined chains on a pair of manacles we never knew we were wearing, but as a climb up a mountain or a neverending game of “I dare you.” I dare you to try more, to do something different, to remember or to learn how best to live.

We only have one first. A first time riding in a plane, a first time seeing the ocean, a first time eating an orange, a first time falling in love. It happens and it finishes in the same moment. A simultaneous life and death that will slowly kill us if we don’t realize it.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wants us to realize it. To do so he shares exquisite moments where he realized it during his career as an Aéropostale pilot in Northern Africa and South America. He’s lying atop a pebbled ledge in the Sahara Desert and finds a meteorite and knows he’s the only soul who has ever seen this rock. It’s a first, but one that he wants us to savor. He’s in the desert in Libya, three days without water, and he sees fantastic mirages—they are false, but they are something new only once, and he wants us to appreciate that.

What he wants is neither that new nor that radical. By recounting his memories he wants to inspire us to unlock our hands from our keyboards, to put our wallets back in our pockets, to unleash the shopkeepers from their shops, to look in a mirror, to look at each other, and to recognize something.

In English this humanist adventure tale is titled Wind, Sand, and Stars, evocative but lacking. The French title, Terre des hommes, or Land of Men, is better. There is no wind, there is no sand, there are no stars, if we are not there to observe them, or even more, to appreciate them. Life is a battle to stay awake. And according to Saint-Exupéry, it doesn’t have to be much of a battle if we just look around every once and a while. Whether we’re flying across the Andes in a snowstorm straining to find the light of a house and human soul below or whether we simply open our eyes while walking down the street, we can win the battle. Being awake will no longer mean adhering to a game of “I dare you,” a set of steps leading to more, more, more to stop us from getting bored. Everyday can have a first, every person can be awake, if we remember every single moment that we’re alive on this sphere in the universe.

5 stars out of 5

Review: Deathless by Catherynne Valente

8694389Blurb:

Koschei the Deathless is to Russian folklore what devils or wicked witches are to European culture: a menacing, evil figure; the villain of countless stories which have been passed on through story and text for generations. But Koschei has never before been seen through the eyes of Catherynne Valente, whose modernized and transformed take on the legend brings the action to modern times, spanning many of the great developments of Russian history in the twentieth century.

Deathless, however, is no dry, historical tome: it lights up like fire as the young Marya Morevna transforms from a clever child of the revolution, to Koschei’s beautiful bride, to his eventual undoing. Along the way there are Stalinist house elves, magical quests, secrecy and bureaucracy, and games of lust and power. All told, Deathless is a collision of magical history and actual history, of revolution and mythology, of love and death, which will bring Russian myth back to life in a stunning new incarnation.

Review:

The question is always who is to take and who is to give. I took first, that’s all. You will take last.

Everyone knows that the greatest stories are told in threes. Goldilocks eats the porridge of three bears, not two, not four. The Big Bad Wolf tries to blow down the houses of three little pigs, no less, no more. And in Deathless, a madcap retelling of bits of Russian folklore, the tradition does not waver. It pivots on the tragic interactions between three characters: Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of Life, who is so desperate to keep the world alive that he’s surrounded by death; Marya Morevna, his stolen bride, whose every heartbeat pushes her towards death, away from the magical domain of her deathless husband; and Ivan the Fool, the human soldier who pitifully falls in love with Marya, a woman spotted with scars from loving and warring with another man more incredible than Ivan will ever be.

These three characters will bite, kick, chase after, flee from, kiss, maim, heal, hate, blame, love, and forgive each other all across Russia, both the “real” Russia and the fantastic Russia found in storybooks. There are two wars going on, one with Germany, another with the Tsar of Death. And yet communism, Stalin, and the Siege of Leningrad all fade beside the twisted fates of Koschei, Marya, and Ivan.

In writing that is clever, feminist, complex, and downright lush, Catherynne Valente asks: Can love be equal? Is it only true power when it’s given, not taken? Should colorful monsters be caged in the name of progress? Is life an end or a beginning?

I received no answers, but opaque maybes, grey sortas, honest but frustrating it-depends-on-the-situation. Deathless is wild, dark, and sexy. Even as people are dying all around, even as hope disappears, from now on only to exist in the lands of the Tsar of Death, Koschei, Ivan, and Marya push forward, together and apart; their deformed and pure love for each other deathless even as Death hunts them down.

5 out of 5 stars

Review: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon

13273327Blurb:

The sheltered son of a Jewish mobster, Art Bechstein leaps into his first summer as a college graduate as cluelessly as he capered through his school years. But new friends and lovers are eager to guide him through these sultry days of last-ditch youthful alienation and sexual confusion–in a blue-collar city where the mundane can sometimes appear almost magical.

Review:

Take a dull boy in a dull city during a dull, liminal summer. Not an adult but soon-to-be, not really anything yet but certain he will be. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh begins at this doorway and records Art Bechstein’s quest for a summer of whimsy and profundity that will change him for the better.

June finds Art making fantastic new friends who all seem to know how to live better than he does. Inspired, Art sits atop a hill in Pittsburgh and thinks this:

I smoked and looked down at the bottom of Pittsburgh for a little while, watching the kids playing tiny baseball, the distant figures of dogs snatching at a little passing car, a miniature housewife on her back porch shaking out a snippet of red rug, and I made a sudden, frightened vow never to become that small, and to devote myself to getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

June leads to July and then August, sultry months that will find Art in various predicaments that are recounted nostalgically even as they are happening for the first time, and throughout Art will interrogate himself: How does one become “big”? But to answer how, it is necessary to answer what. What does it mean to be “big”?

Each character approaches bigness differently, and Art finds something to envy with every one. Big, mean Cleveland steps onto the page straight from a Hollywood action sequence. He is undoubtedly the biggest character in the novel. But you don’t even have to squint to notice how small he is inside. He resorts to showing off to hide his emptiness, and yet everyone around him idolizes him, fears him, historicizes him even though he’s a 20-something who has barely started living.

The other two principals in Art’s motley crew are Phlox, the girlfriend described as a movie star beauty but who is terribly mundane beneath it all, and Arthur, the cultivated gay man who feigns coming from a palace but actually grew up in a 2-bedroom ranch. Every character starts out big but pops at some point, floating downwards towards the blue-collar streets of Pittsburgh. Maybe down there they aren’t big, but there they can stop and think for a while. And maybe there, like Art, they’ll learn that bigness doesn’t come with living; it comes with remembering. Philosophizing, exaggerating, daydreaming—whatever you want to call it. People are big when they give you something to think about.

5 out of 5 stars

Review: Marie-Antoinette by Stefan Zweig

1320141Blurb:

Life at the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette has long captivated readers, drawn by accounts of the intrigues and pageantry that came to such a sudden and unexpected end. Stefan Zweig’s Marie Antoinette is a dramatic account of the guillotine’s most famous victim, from the time when as a fourteen-year-old she took Versailles by storm, to her frustrations with her aloof husband, her passionate love affair with the Swedish Count von Fersen, and ultimately to the chaos of the French Revolution and the savagery of the Terror. An impassioned narrative, Zweig’s biography focuses on the human emotions of the participants and victims of the French Revolution, making it both an engrossingly compelling read and a sweeping and informative history.

Review:

What is the sum of a life? The manner in which an individual toiled away the majority of her living hours, the way history chooses to remember her, or how she approaches her final days, trying to live while knowing all that awaits her is death? In evaluating the sum of Marie-Antoinette’s life, the answer to this question is critical. Her rich story has been combed over by many a magnifying glass both during and after her reign as Queen of France, and it’s so full of anomalies that more than two centuries later, it’s still impossible to fully appreciate this historical figure, icon of an era, both vixen and victim. Stefan Zweig, however, in this seminal biography, does his best. In a way he seems to acknowledge the impossibility of it by noting the existence of several distinct Marie-Antoinette’s, one for each distinct epoch of history she occupied in her abridged life of 37 years.

He begins with Marie-Antoinette’s voyage to France at the age of 14 to unite the feuding Bourbon and Habsburg crowns. Married to the impotent, indecisive, and altogether unroyal dauphin—soon-to-be Louis XVI, who will keep the most hilarious personal journal of all-time: his entry on July 14, 1789, the day the Parisians take the Bastille and kick off the Revolution reads, “Rien,” that is, “Nothing”—Marie-Antoinette tries to lose herself in a world of superficiality. Gambling, dances, dresses, and theatre occupy her first decade in France. She is the symbol of the era of rococo, the brilliant zenith of an age of luxury and carelessness birthed by Louis XIV. From Versailles she idles away her days, much to the chagrin of her mother, Empress Marie-Thérèse of Austria, who pleads her daughter for political seriousness. Marie-Antoinette responds, “Que me veut-elle? J’ai peur de m’ennuyer,” her words a motto for the era (“What does she want from me? I’m scared of being bored.”).

But the tableau darkens. For Marie-Antoinette, home, that is, Versailles, will soon become a second-rate palace in Paris, which will become a guarded tower in prison, which will become a single jail cell, which will become an unmarked grave. She doesn’t know it, but we and Stefan Zweig do, which makes her various inadequacies in the years leading to the Revolution, evinced in fantastically entertaining affairs like “L’affaire du collier,” where she’s blamed for the theft of a diamond necklace, so vexing. A girl who does everything to eschew seriousness will be killed for it. And we read on…

Finally, Marie-Antoinette realizes her mistakes and, late in the game, seems ready to play. The rules have changed, however. Blood and terror rule in Paris. The Queen of France is now “Madame Déficit.” It’s even a greater shame, then, that right when Marie-Antoinette finds herself a meaningful life with two children and a Swedish lover, her life is certainly over.

Zweig details this extreme love story and the incredible inner strength Marie-Antoinette demonstrates until her final step on the platform of the guillotine with extraordinary psychological and personal detail. Unlike other biographers, Zweig does not content himself in reciting facts; he is there to unpack and repackage this ill-fated queen’s very essence. His approach is somewhat suspect, based both on personal correspondence discovered in the Austrian archives and the records of her Swedish lover and the Freudian insights popular in Zweig’s time. But it’s so carefully researched, so lovingly researched, that it feels infallible.

Lately I’ve been wondering where humans find strength to survive in trying times. Where Marie-Antoinette found hers is a mystery: probably a combination between love for her family and friends and an ingrained, inborn belief that she was divinely royal. Has there ever been such a life? Such a magnificent story? Here Zweig recounts the life of a relic, the last and most gleaming example of an era, left to rot, headless, in an unmarked grave. But what Marie-Antoinette gives us, those who ponder her fate centuries later, is the possibility to remember her, marvel over her, and adopt some of the fortitude and wisdom with which she faced her final days.

5 out of 5 stars

Review: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

881655Blurb:

“Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge”

More than fifty years on, Iris Chase is remembering Laura’s mysterious death. And so begins an extraordinary and compelling story of two sisters and their secrets. Set against a panoramic backdrop of twentieth-century history, The Blind Assassin is an epic tale of memory, intrigue and betrayal…

Review:

If a book’s quality can be judged by my desire to write an alternative ending for it, thenThe Blind Assassin is a book of sterling quality. Because I want to write pages and pages where certain things that happen in this book simply don’t happen. I want so badly for it to end differently, yet I love it so much because of how it does end.

In The Blind Assassin Margaret Atwood is exploring an epic subject that’s also a little bit dangerous: sisterhood. Is there a darker, more confounding type of relationship in the world? For all the complicated tragedies they’ve inspired, love stories are simple: they’re based on giving and taking—you give love, I take it; I give love, you take it; and we cross our fingers that the exchange is equal. But a sister story is based on sharing. Sisters share parents and friends, a home and often a room, arms, legs, and faces—though cruelly one will always be prettier than the other, and of course, desires and secrets.

One day the sharing must stop, however, and what will happen then? In The Blind Assassin tragedy happens, tragedy of the tricky, unassuming type that isn’t obviously tragic until it is. The narrator Iris presents her and her sister Laura’s tragedy in four windows. Frame One is a sci-fi story about a blind assassin, a mute priestess, and a destroyed kingdom; Frame Two is a published novel including Frame One’s sci-fi story recounted by two clandestine lovers; Frame Three features the memoirs of Iris in which she mostly recounts how she and Laura grew up and how The Blind Assassin (the novel in Frame Two) came to be published after Laura’s suicide; Frame Four discusses Iris’s present life as an old, regretful woman. It sounds like a complex hodgepodge, which it is, but each frame references the others to complete the whole wonderful tragic thing. Frame Four is tedious and occasionally weighs down the narrative, but it remains necessary regardless.

If sisterhood is about sharing, it is obvious from the beginning that something went very wrong in the sisterhood of Iris and Laura Chase. Where they once shared life, they no longer do, Laura having left Iris in the land of the living after her suicide at age 25. The entire book, four frames and all, explains, slowly and subtly, how the relationship between these two sisters splintered until it broke, utterly and completely.

Men are involved, of course. How could they not be, in the gilded but sequestered halls of the early 20th Century where a woman lacked any skills other than her ability to be married? Atwood is brilliant at showing how constrained and choiceless poor Laura and Iris are. Their only salvation from this constraint lies with each other, but jealousy and misunderstanding run deep and destructive between the sisters.

The title The Blind Assassin is interesting and multifunctional. There’s a character who is blind and assassin in the sci-fi tale, which eponymously endows Laura’s novel The Blind Assassin, and then there’s the actual novel, written by Margaret Atwood, which she has titled The Blind Assassin. Evidently it’s important. I think it means that we become assassins if we’re blind. If we choose or even simply fail to see what is happening around us, we become unintentional killers, maiming blindly yet temporarily. Our victims disappear but we will remain, alive and unfortunately restored to sight. The living, like Iris, are left, eyes wide open, forever gazing at the broken path behind them.

4.5 out of 5 stars