Tag Archives: Literature

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien

The devastation of war leaves behind many victims consigned to clean up the mess that was once their life. Homeless, both literally and figuratively, they huddle together as refugees in their new countries trying to come to terms with an altered sense of self, brushing aside those clinging memories which must be left in the past if they are to survive in the future.

The title The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien refers to the 11,541 red chairs placed in the center of the capital of Bosnia in 2012, representing each person who died during the 1992-1995 Siege of Sarajevo, small chairs (643) indicating the life of a child. Such a visualization can’t help but move the reader before a single page is even turned. O’Brien’s intent is to haunt us as the story unfolds.

A charismatic stranger, Dr Vladimir Dragan, enters a small town in Ireland, intriguing the locals as he worms his way into the community, setting up shop as an alternative healer. Using his knowledgable background, he mesmerizes the townspeople, gaining their trust, even taking their children out to the countryside to teach them about the natural habitat. Vlad’s expertise in literature and poetry endears him to the members of the book club, gaining him further acceptance. One lonely woman, Fidelma, in a frigid marriage to an older man, desperately wants a child and convinces Vlad to oblige her desires. He reluctantly agrees and during their brief affair he also introduces her to the romance she craves. Verifying her condition, she is left wondering how to explain her predicament to her husband when her lover, afraid of discovery, disappears. Several weeks pass and he reappears, rumpled and mangy, for a previously arranged poetry outing. On the bus filled with townspeople, he is arrested as a master war criminal to the horror of the entire village, but especially to the pregnant Fidelma. Vlad has been on the run for almost twenty years avoiding an arrest for the atrocities he ordered during the Bosnian War, especially during the Siege of Sarajevo. Responsible for the death of thousands in an attempt at ethnic cleansing to remove all the Muslims in Yugoslavia, this man is hated the world over.

Realizing she is carrying this monster’s child, Fidelma wonders how to rid herself of this affliction, but matters are taken out of her hands when she is kidnapped and brutalized for revenge by Vlad’s bodyguards who are livid that they couldn’t claim the huge reward for their former boss’s capture. Just barely escaping death, Fidelma is rejected by her husband and seeks refuge from the nuns at the nearby convent who help her escape to London where she becomes one of the homeless and disenfranchised.

Now a refugee from her own homeland where she no longer feels welcome she must find a new life which includes meeting and hearing the stories of others who also have heartbreaking tales to confess, a string of seemingly unrelated anecdotes sharing a common bond of crimes against humanity. Fidelma meanders through various jobs drifting from one location to another, finally seeing closure by going to The Hague to attend Vlad’s trial and confront her former lover who is unable to admit any responsibility for his actions. Hearing his blame game, she must accept her own guilt in this matter so she can move forward. In a way, she is another war victim of this man. Eventually Fidelma finds some sort of peace with the help of her “new kin”.

Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this story which is full of literary references and an underlying message. There are many parallels with the author’s life. Edna O’Brien was a poet from a young age who felt a deep connection to literature and ran off with a writer to spite her parents and escape their disapproval, just as Fidelma left her parents to find a better life with an older, wealthier husband. O’Brien, who focuses on the truth, refusing to sugar coat her findings, has habitually found her books banned in Ireland due to the power and control of a church which prefers to deny the foibles of the average man prone to sin. O’Brien believes literature provides a means of escape and uses literary illusions as a parallel to Fidelma’s hardships, with references to classics such as Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, The Heart of Darkness by William Conrad, The Aeneid by Virgil, and A Midsummer’s Night Dream by William Shakespeare. Including subtle underlying caveats, such as the name Fidelmas which means faithfulness and Vud (Vlad’s nickname) which means wolf, O’Brien’s true genius is in her vignettes revealing that each person has a tale to tell, no matter how reluctant the storyteller.

Carefully researched to bring an authenticity to her writing, O’Brien even attended the trial at The Hague of Radovan Karadzic, the true villain behind the ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian War who received a sentence of forty years about a year ago.

This seemingly straightforward book leaves the reader with more questions than answers. While I would have preferred a bit more expository transitions between events, The Little Red Chairs is a poignant narrative reminding us of the evil which still exists in our world manifested, but all too often ignored, in the mantra “Never Forget”.

Four stars.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

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Nabokov in America: The Road to Lolita by Robert Roper

I was an innocent when I first read Lolita by Nabokov, not even old enough to vote. My college professor must have gotten a kick out of my reactions to this novel as I wasn’t much older than Lolita, being as naive as a youngster. I’ll admit that I had never read a book like this before, but I must have brought something to the table as I got an A in the course.

So when I saw this book, I wondered about Nabokov and his motivations. Although I didn’t remember all the details, how could one forget Humbert Humbert. Over the years I have often wondered about the topic of pedophilia. In some cultures older men take young girls as brides, and even in America children as young as fourteen have been wed (though this is not a common practice). Then there are the cases of teachers falling in love with their students. Is this a matter of “she” or “he” (this is not limited to older men and younger girls) finding “the one” – Not a matter of being attracted to all young teens, but that particular boy or girl? I would like to think the passion for another is a deep rooted feeling special for that one person, not an “epidemic” of indiscriminate sex. Yet if it’s true love, the elder should wait or “keep it in their pants” (as we say) until the child is of age, but human nature, or more accurately our animal instincts, kicks in and scandal results.

Robert Roper, an admitted Nabokovian, takes the reader on a detailed journey over the years that Nabokov lived in the United States in “Nabokov in America: The Road to Lolita”. Nabokov led a complex life filled with drama, including his escape from Europe on the last ship out of France before the Nazi occupation, saving the life of his Jewish wife and son.

Born in Russia, Nabokov was also fluent in German, French and English, often creating translations of his own works (as well as of other author’s writings). He actually could read English at the age of four, even before he could decipher his native tongue. Nabokov lived in the US from 1940 to 1960 traveling across the country by car, logging over 200,000 miles throughout the twenty year span. A naturalist who loved the outdoors, Nabokov was an avid butterfly collector, even discovering a new species. He visited numerous national parks throughout America, visiting museums to see and discuss his favorite topic – collecting butterflies and moths (lepidoperology). He even curated the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard where he identified and catalogued their large collection of butterflies.

His financial situation had its ups and downs and the family often lived on the stipends and fellowships he received from places such as the Guggenheim which supported the arts (including literature). Inbetween road trips, Nabokov worked at various universities, such as Wellesly and Cornell, teaching Russian Literature. He was a dynamic professor who brought a unique spin on the topic to his classroom. He also was a popular guest speaker at various locations throughout the country.

It was during these American years that Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita, which brought him the fame he knew he deserved. One of Vladimir’s close friends was a pedaphile which could easily have influenced the plot of Lolita, but Nabokov had also been fascinated by this topic while living in Europe and published other works involving pedaphilia prior to this novel. The travels of Humbert Humbert across the United States with his beloved Lolita mirrored the motor trips taken by the Nabokov family over two-lane highways, where they, too, stayed in motels and ate at roadside diners. Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert who marries a widow to get closer to her daughter Lolita. When his wife dies, Humbert kidnaps and flees with his underaged “daughter/lover” to escape his nemesis who is also pursuing the nymphette Lolita.

Once completed the manuscript was extremely difficult to publish due to its sexual content, and ended up being distributed by Olympia in 1955 in England where some considered it to be the best book of the year in spite of its shocking content. It was finally published in the US in 1958. Despite the outrage, this book was so well written it was impossible to dismiss (plus there were no four letter words in it). By September, it was so popular it rose to number one on the New York Times Bestsellers list for seven weeks, selling 100,000+ copies in its first year and millions over the next decade. Stanley Kubrick bought the movie rights for $150,000. Ironically, while under restriction in Britain and France, Lolita was embraced by America. The author referred to this whirlwind of attention as Hurricane Lolita, making the author instantly famous at the age of 59. Other scandalous books of the time were Peyton Place, Catcher in the Rye, and Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Despite the adulation from his adopted country, when Vladimir’sy son, Dmitri, went to Italy to study Opera, Nabokov and his wife Vera moved to Switzerland to be close to their only child. Nabokov died there in 1977, visiting the US only twice, in 1962 for the release of the movie and in 1964 to do some readings.

Robert Roper writes in a literary style, analyzing and commenting on Nabokov’s life and works. He includes references to other literary giants of the era (both American and European) as well as Nabokov’s reactions to their works. This book is extremely detailed and well researched full of excerpts from various correspondence and Nabokov’s written works with a special focus on the novel Lolita. Nabokov in America: The Road to Lolita is definitely not for the casual reader, but would be an excellent source for a scholar interested in this topic. The author of this book did quite a bit of name dropping and seemed to exhibit a bit of an ego, but it did not distract from the whole. Four stars.

A thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

I think I was being mocked. Gabrielle Zevin author of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry was actually making fun of me and my passions. Perhaps she was lambasting herself as well. While the average person will enjoy this novel (one might even refer to it as a longish novella or a novelette), it is only the true bibliophile who will really “get” it. Librarians, book shop owners and workers, book club members, avid readers are all included in the mix. If you know your literature, you’ll get a kick out of all the “title” dropping that occurs. Even the chapters are proceeded by a mini review of various short stories recommended by A. J., the main character.

Fikry is a carmudgeon at the age of thirty nine. Even before his beloved wife died in a car accident, he was the anti-social sort who immerses himself into literature. Not any old books, but ones which he considers true literature, within the confines of his narrow vision of what comprises the components of a good book. When our heroine, Amy, appears at the beginning of this story (and we don’t see her again until much later in the novel), she is a newly minted Book Rep visiting each of the book shops in her region to entice the owners into ordering the current seasonal offerings of her client, Knightly Press. After A. J. is rude to her, an exasperated Amy asks him to share what kind of book he likes. He responds that it’s easier to list what he doesn’t like and we are given a litany of book types, including “genre mash-ups” and “gimmicks of any kind”. Whether we agree with his reasoning or not, the reader must respect Fikry’s knowledge about the sorts of books currently being offered to the reading community.

Forward to a drunken A. J. who doesn’t feel he has much to live for. He passes out with a copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tamerlane for company and when he wakes up, this rare manuscript is missing. With the loss of this book comes the loss of his future. Now he can’t retire but must carry on at his little island bookshop with a home above the store. Upon the recommendation of his doctor, Fikry takes up running but leaves the door unlocked since there is nothing left of value to steal. Little does he realize that something more precious than a $400,000 book is left behind which changes his life for the better.

Within the guidelines of the tale are the hidden gems. Zevin doesn’t treat her readers like imbeciles. Just as you think that she’s an expert on “show, don’t tell”, AJ exclaims that “Novels are all tell. The best ones at least. Novels aren’t meant to be imitation screen plays.” When you wonder about the awkwardness of a story told in third person present tense, one of the characters refers to such a narrative as childish. At a book club meeting, we are told that the most important aspect of the event is the food and drink (a necessary component of any book discussion).

Every feature within the book has a purpose which is not revealed until the proper moment. AJ clearly states he believes in narrative constructions, but in the author notes Gabrielle readily admits that this isn’t true in real life where coincidences regularly occur and questions go unanswered, also reminding us that The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is a novel. Within the plot, there were some predictable events, a few surprises, and numerous clever quotes to go along with the witty dialogue. Amy recalls the little details of her past, such as how her mom would regularly mail her a new package of underwear so that she never had to actually purchase any for herself until after her mother’s death. She finally realizes that despite their stormy relationship, “nobody will ever love me that much again”.

Is this a perfect book, by no means. (Please note that the following paragraph contains some spoilers) There are several upsettling events and a few characters who were less than stellar. One also wonders if the author planned to kill off the main character from the beginning or was it an after thought to tie up loose ends? Maya was a little too precocious as a child and a little too obnoxious as a teen. And while AJ was angry about his mom’s Christmas gift, that didn’t excuse his rude behavior. His tantrum detracted from the happiness of the better life he had attained and made me wonder about other possible unpleasant behind-the-scenes family events.

My take away consists of two quotes:
We are not quite novels. We are not quite short stories. In the end we are collected works.
And
There ain’t nobody in the world like book people.

I couldn’t agree more. Four stars.