Book Review: Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

Winter’s Tale – Mark Helprin (A Harvest Book)

Where to start talking about a book like Winter’s Tale? Almost more of a philosophical venture than a novel; it’s magic realism, fantasy, historical fiction, a little bit of cyber punk. There’s even time travel. Sort of.

Blurbs will tell you that Winter’s Tale is the story of Peter Lake, a thief who falls in love with a rich man’s daughter when breaking into their house in New York City. While this is definitely a key part of the book, it doesn’t really encompass the whole novel because Peter Lake isn’t even in other parts of the book and his love story with Beverly Penn really doesn’t take up much of the novel.

This is more a story about an idea. About winter, about a city that almost exists. Helprin delves into the lives of other characters, each of them connected, and into the tale of a magical, unbelievable winter, in a version of New York City that could almost be real. There’s a horse that can fly, a cloud wall that swallows people whole, and a village that you can’t get to except by accident.

The descriptions are rich and extensive. There are many, many descriptions of winter and snow and ice and they offer enough variance that they continue to feel fresh even as the novel progresses for seven hundred pages. The story also delves into the lives of several different characters, sometimes more than seems necessary considering some of them are pretty minor, but overall the stories are interesting and add to an overall depth of this fantastical world.

Much of the story is set in New York on the cusp of the millennium and it’s interesting to read a vision of what is now our past from the 1980s. New York is gritty and violent; not being personally familiar with the city I never quite got a handle on what was supposed to be lifelike and what was not and instead chose to see the portrayal as one of a mythical city. Personally, I felt like the story works better when you forget that it’s supposed to be set in New York. This clearly is not our world and the attempts to ground it in the familiar often felt jarring.

With a book this size, the question is often, “Was it worth it?” And I would say a tentative yes. There are enough truly beautiful sections of writing that made reading this novel worthwhile. The plot lacks a cohesiveness that perhaps a shorter novel could provide but Helprin is attempting to delve into ideas so large – justice and love being primary among them – that I couldn’t help but cut him some slack. Not every reader will feel the same way. If you enjoy some magic realism and extreme flights of fancy and don’t need a plot going from Point A to B to C then you might enjoy Winter’s Tale too.

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Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 2015)

I’ve been sitting on this review for a while, pondering how I feel about A Little Life. Turns out, the longer I wait, the less I feel as though I really liked this novel.

I heard several rave reviews of it before I started (including the cashier at Powells when I picked up a used copy in Portland) and so was happy to tackle the huge hardcover. And it wasn’t hard to get into. The characters are interesting and diverse and the book moves forward quickly and with a rate of revelation that makes you want to keep reading.

The novel’s description will tell you that it’s about four friends: Willem, Jude, JB, and Malcolm, and that it follows them from their early twenties, shortly after they’ve been roommates in university, and through the next forty or so years of life. That isn’t false but it’s really more the story of Jude and Willem. At some point, JB and Malcolm drop to secondary characters and while the book checks in on them occasionally, we don’t get much detail of their lives and we stop seeing anything from their perspective.

Even more so, the book is about Jude. It is Jude’s mysterious background and childhood that compel the reader to keep reading, as it is slowly revealed, and it is Jude’s development (or lack thereof) that we’re following. And while this is what kept me interested while I read, it’s also what makes me look back on the novel with a little less affection.

Jude arrives at university two years younger than his new roommates (who quickly become his first friends) and with his past shrouded with secrecy. He doesn’t talk about his home or family and others soon learn not to ask. At one point, it’s mentioned that they don’t even know Jude’s ethnicity, which I found slightly hard to believe and an unnecessary mystery.

Jude’s past is horrific. This is clear from early on and as the story progresses, more is steadily revealed until we learn the final, terrible event that left Jude physically disabled. There’s no one event in Jude’s life that is unbelievable – unfortunately, the world is full of terrible people and events and things like this do happen to children. It wasn’t even the sheer amount of horror that occurs to Jude in his life that felt unrealistic, it was that it is never balanced by a single moment of kindness. Everyone Jude meets from birth to about age sixteen is terrible and abusive. And then everyone after that (with one notable exception) loves and cares for and protects Jude. It seems that there is no middle ground with Jude; either people respect and care for him or they hate him and physically abuse him. This is a world without people who are ambivalent to or ignore others, it seems.

It’s a pity because Jude is an interesting character and the book uniquely looks at his life and the aftermath of his abusive childhood. The trauma of it follows and affects him for the rest of his life and it makes for a fascinating and heartbreaking portrayal of a person struggling to recover from something so terrible.

The friendship of Willem and Jude is central to the novel and we get a decent look at Willem’s background and his own childhood and how that has affected him. However, he remains a somewhat one-dimensional character, more a foil for Jude than someone who would be interesting to read about in his own right. Partway through the book, the relationship between Willem and Jude changes drastically and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I don’t want to reveal too much but it felt like an unnecessary alteration. The friendship that the two men have up until that point is powerful and unique and the change seems to be done more to create tension than anything else. It didn’t feel like a natural progression of their relationship.

While I’ve been rather negative here, I did enjoy A Little Life while I read it. It’s a big book but I finished it quickly because I wanted to keep reading it and to find out what happened to the characters. Yanagihara is clearly a skilled writer and I would be happy to read more of her work.

Book Review: Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

Here I Am - Jonathan Safran Foer

Here I Am – Jonathan Safran Foer

Here I Am is 500+ pages and it took me about half of that to begin enjoying the novel. Having read Foer’s work before, I was sure my commitment would pay off. At the same time, my expectations of Foer’s work led to some initial disappointment with Here I Am.

Foer’s two previous novels, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Everything is Illuminated both featured strong, unique, and often hilarious narrators. Here I Am has a far more subdued narration, a more withdrawn, third person perspective. It was harder to feel engaged in the story, added to the fact that this isn’t exactly an action-filled novel.

The book focuses on four generations of the Bloch family in Washington, D.C. Isaac is a Holocaust survivor, about to move into a Jewish retirement home. Irving is a hard-nosed, controversial political commentator. Jacob – the primary focus of the novel – is mid-forties, nominally-religious, on the cusp of trying to make his marriage work or giving up entirely. Sam is thirteen, preparing for his bar mitzvah, which is in danger of being permanently cancelled. These four men bounce off each other, argue, are affectionate and hateful in equal measure. Then, tossed into the mix of regular life and conflict, a massive earthquake hits the Middle East and Israel is thrown into conflict as war and disease break out.

This is where the novel became more interesting to me. The diversion into alternate history is fascinating – how such an event might play out, particularly the international implications. When the earthquake hits, the Bloch’s Israeli cousins are visiting in Washington and Foer does a good job of portraying the two perspectives. The American Jewish family who care about Israel but don’t think of it as home, and the Israeli Jewish family. Showing this split within one extended family powerfully demonstrates the divisions and changes that have grown and developed among the Jewish people since the end of World War Two.

One of the interesting ideas that Foer brings forth as a result of this fictional upheaval in Israel is that the Israeli government calls for the Jewish people to return home. While this causes Jacob to make some big decisions in his life, it also mirrors the question of loyalty and commitment that is growing in his own household as his marriage with Julia founders.

In the end, there is a lot to admire in Here I Am. I certainly do feel that it could have been shorter, primarily because none of the characters really grabbed me in the way that Foer’s previous creations had. It was hard to sympathize with any of them, especially Jacob, as they worried over their privileged lives and had endless conversations that skirted around the real topics. (And I live a pretty privileged life myself.) The character who potentially interested me the most was Isaac but he didn’t get a lot of time on the page (which reflected how much time his family really spent with him). Foer continues to be a strong writer and I applaud him for reaching out into a different kind of story than his previous novels but I’ll be hoping for something a little more engaging next time.