From the Land of the Moon is a novella about a Sardinian woman searching for love in the post-war years amongst the metaphorical and literal ruins of her life. The woman recognizes that her nature is perhaps flawed as true love seems to remain elusive. Her quest assumes at times, sad, pitiable, desperate and creative forms that echo the pathos of Anna Karenina and Madam Bovary. The woman moves about the Italian landscapes of Cagliari and Milan as the country rebuilds from the effects of Allied Bombing and Nazi retreat. The settings of the story provide the physical architecture of the woman’s efforts and parallels can be drawn between the reconstruction and her state of mind. The story is told from the point of view of the woman’s granddaughter after the woman, referred to as Grandmother, has passed away, providing a doubly unreliable narrative: The woman herself may have been insane and her story suffers from being two generations away from being immediately verified. From the Land of the Moon is poignant without being maudlin and, the letter which serves as the final chapter is a powerful denouement.
From the Land of the Moon qualifies for the What’s in a Name? Challenge #5 hosted by @BethFishReads at http://www.BethFishReads. The title, From the Land of the Moon contains a word that is “something you’d see in the sky“: “Moon”
I borrowed a copy of From the Land of the Moon (by Milena Agus; translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein) form the Jackson County Library System in Southern Oregon. I receive no monies, goods and/or service in exchange for reviewing this product and/or mentioning any of the persons that are or may be implied in this post.
The narrator, Donna Tartt, is an author in her own right who *loves* this book, as averred in her short essay at the end of the audio. I’ll not fault her strong Mississippi accent; but she is not a narrator and brings no added value to the production. D.T. lacks the fluidity required to keep the story going, drawing attention to the “he saids” and deploying pauses that even the kindest listener could not interpret as a meaningful or dramatic. There are booth noises, an occasional mouth noise and, some of her words are clipped just a fraction of second too short. This is a quick and dirty production.
The 1969 screenplay is truer to the original story up to a point but then Marguerite Roberts (screenwriter) blows the ending so badly it’s painful and, it negates the value of having adhered to the novel’s points previously. The ’69 movie ends much more upbeat than the novel and paves the way for a sequel. The whole of the movie is much brighter than the novel might suggest, reflecting the film-making sensibilities of the times. Dirt, drunkeness and even blood are more inferred than illustrated – giving the movie a “clean” and staged look. The actors perform self-consciously and none of the characters are fully realized. The delivery of the language is very modern in tone, characters sounding more like mid-twentieth century people than mid-nineteenth.
Recommendation: Read the book in print. The audio and the movies all fall short of Charles Portis’ writing.
True Grit qualifies for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge hosted by Sheila at her blog, Book Journey. True Grit is a short novel set in Western Arkansas and, Eastern Oklahoma in the Indian Territory/Choctaw Nation.
What Caribou Island is, is a novel about a family on the Kenai Peninsula whose quotidian routines (begotten of never-ending regret and frustration) are disturbed as Gary, the patriarch of the family, decides to build a cabin in an even more remote area off of the peninsula. His wife, Irene, the unwilling accomplice in the ill-conceived plan, assumes her role of martyr on a scale not seen since the days of Greek Tragedy, suffering from inexplicable and severe headaches and, the conviction that her husband is taking steps to leave her. Gary and Irene’s daughter, Rhoda, is the Cassandra of this epic, eddying around in her parents’ wake as her perceptive concern blinds her to her own domestic situation. And then there is Mark, Rhoda’s brother, the erstwhile fisherman and career stoner, blithely unconcerned with the fates of those surrounding him.
David Vann’s writing is figuratively photo-realistic, portraying setting and characters vividly (mosquitoes, warts and all;)but you may have cause to want to expunge those images from your mind by the time the book has ended. It’s all a bit dark in timbre and the big scene is surreal and graphic (though no surprise to those familiar with David Vann’s previous work.) The setting may be gorgeous; but none of the people are likable and; there is nothing funny or happy about this story. Caribou Island is a tragedy set in modern context and as such the listener can expect to see an exposition of immutable fate and impotent people. There is no antidote in this story, no convincing argument that the events as they unfolded were not inevitable and no solace that the reader or listener is really inherently different from the characters in the book. There is little to take away from the story other than we may be living out our own modern tragedies.
Bronson Pinchot’s narration hits all the right notes, imbuing each character with distinction and pathos. If I were to fault him for anything, it would be for the voice of Monique, a young seductress. Monique doesn’t sound natural, somehow at odds with the quality of the rest of the narration.
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The Lotus Eaters
By Tatjana Soli
narrated by Kirsten Potter
14.90 recorded hours
Matterhorn (by Karl Marlantes) whetted my appetite for more novels about the Vietnam War. Previously a topic that did not particularly interest me, given that I’m not much for topics that happen in my own lifetime, the Vietnam War had made little impression upon my quotidian thoughts. That changed when Karl Marlantes managed to dump me in the middle of the jungle. So now, the Vietnam War has gotten into my head. Everyday I think about it. Sometimes it’s a small thought like when I see a Vietnam War Veteran’s license plate. Sometimes it’s a bigger thought like when journalists compare Iraq with Vietnam. But the point is, that the Vietnam War has become a part of my living history, my present, even though I was not there. The most natural way for me to feed my interests is to read. Fiction. Non-Fiction. It doesn’t matter because in reading more and more about any topic, what is true becomes evident and what isn’t falls away.
When Matterhorn was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, a companion review of The Lotus Eaters also appeared (read Danielle Trussoni’s review and Janet Maslin’s earlier review.) I was at first reluctant to pick up The Lotus Eaters because it didn’t sound gritty enough. It sounded more like a love story for women to read then a book that would transport me to the Vietnam War. I can’t pinpoint what changed my mind; but it may have been pure laziness. The company I work for produced the audio and so I could (and did) walk over to the warehouse and borrow a copy. And besides, there is a helicopter on the cover…
The story is about Helen, a girl who arrives in Vietnam as a novice photographer, ostensibly choosing Vietnam because she wants to discover more about the circumstances of her brother’s death as a soldier. It becomes clear however, that Helen’s own nature has led her there and, now that she is in Vietnam, is intrigued by the land and people. But the overarching theme of the novel is really the addictions that war junkies (the hard core soldiers, the correspondents and photographers who stay on and, the civilians who remain) both relish and suffer despite common sense and the relationships that would otherwise temper risky choices.
The book opens with the fall of Saigon. The listener becomes a voyeur of events that unfold during that day in April 1975 when the crush of people motivated by fear and desperation struggle to escape the approaching conquering armies. The listener follows Helen, the veteran female war photographer as she negotiates the physical and psychological detritus of the city. It becomes clear that this is not your musical, Miss Saigon. Images of the day imprint upon the mind’s eye as much as a newspaper photograph would, a clever literary technique given the protagonist’s profession. This photograph-as-prose approach is subtle in the beginning and more obvious later when certain scenes are literally framed.
Kirsten Potter’s voice is very cool, calm and detached and, appropriate for the novel. Her voice is clear and transparent enough to tell the story and very subtle changes in her tone convey a shift in mood and/or speaker and, accents are used sparingly. The listener is relegated to the third person omniscient POV from the onset of the book and remains there as the author intends. And therein lies my quibble. I don’t want distance from the events. I want to feel them. And I don’t. Still, the highly descriptive prose and the writing technique make this a worthwhile listen. Just don’t expect Matterhorn.
In the above rather provocative tweet sent by a book blogger, a link to a book review of Matterhorn (by Karl Marlantes) was attached. I dutifully clicked on the link and read a rave review about the book:
“It’s the best novel I have ever read about Vietnam, which is saying something as I loved Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried.”
– Michael Jones for The Huffington Post
Now, considering that it took me two weeks to “get out of the bush” after listening to Matterhorn (narrated by Bronson Pinchot,) I was ready to wholeheartedly agree; but then I realized Matterhorn is the only novel about Vietnam I have ever experienced, so what the heck do I know? Hence, I decided to read more novels about Vietnam. Fortuitously, while I was browsing the porch offerings at the Boothbay Library in Maine (any book = 25 cents!) I came across a copy of The Things They Carried and felt it was destiny that it should be the first book to read and compare with Matterhorn.
In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes about the truth of Vietnam, not necessarily what really happened in Vietnam; but stories that show the truth of Vietnam, especially its senselessness. The short story collection (loosely connected by recurring characters) is more about writing about Vietnam than it is about the actual experience of Vietnam. TTTC is metaliterature that allows the reader to intellectually grasp the meaninglessness of the Vietnam War without feeling it in our guts. The stories are illustrations and abstractions of what it was like for Tim O’Brien but the reader is removed from the immediacy of the action.
But maybe I’m being too harsh. After all, the text had no “voice” to shape it, give life to the nuances or the angst of the characters. And now the second fortuitous event occurs in my quest to discover a book that might possibly challenge Matterhorn as The Best Novel About Vietnam: audible.com had one of their member sales! I was able to snag a copy of The Things They Carried (narrated by Tom Stetschulte) rather inexpensively! YAY! My excitement was short-lived however.
Robin Whitten, Founder and Editor of AudioFile Magazine (who, by the way, reviewed TTTC as narrated by Tom Stetschulte and gave it an Earphones Award – read the review here), called my attention to the podcasts that the National Endowment of the Arts produced as part of The Big Read. The NEA/Big Read produced a series of podcasts, each covering a title in their program, of which TTTC was one. I loved the podcast! It contained excerpts from an interview with the author, military vets and, actor Bradley Whitford reading from the book. There were even a couple of cool sound f/x (e.g. the sound of a chopper which moved from the left channel to the right and, a sound clip of The Rolling Stones.) I’m sure Robin Whitten thought that having the background material on TTTC would make me appreciate the novel more; but mostly I thought it was a shame I couldn’t get a recording of Bradley Whitford reading The Things They Carried! Bradley Whitford sounded like he had much more of an affinity for the text.
The Bottom Line:
The writing left me detached and
Other Vietnam Novels TBR: The 13th Valley (by John M.Del Vecchio;) Dispatches (by Michael Herr;) The Lotus Eaters (by Tatjana Soli;) Fatal Light (by Richard Currey) and maybe Going After Cacciato (by Tim O’Brien.) If you have a recommendation for a book (fiction or non-fiction) about the Vietnam War, please leave a comment!
In the hyperbole and YA pomp-and-circumstance surrounding the release of Suzanne Collins’ third volume in the Hunger Games trilogy, it would be easy to overlook the release of a slight volume of prose, translated from the French, of a story crafted from the mind of an Afghan expatriate and; while understandable, it would also be equally unforgivable. Atiq Rahimi’s works are not so much as slight as they are distilled quintessences of stories, carefully crafted scenes of both physical and transcendent landscapes. Rahimi’s stories strip out the superfluous in both language and meaning, providing the reader with true abstracts of the time-and-place and the characters. In Earth & Ashes, the story of an older man who must travel with his grandson to the mines where his son (the boy’s father) works, in order to deliver tragic news, the political language that one might expect to inform the whole of the story’s context, the Russians invading Afghanistan, is supplanted by the realty that Dastaguir (the older man) understands: the immediacy of having his village bombed, his having to witness the destruction and survive it and, to try to make sense of what is only tritely explainable. Dastaguir’s world is reduced to a landscape that has been rendered unto rubble, colored by the dust of the road and the soot of the mining camp, a world he must still literally and figuratively negotiate to reach his son, Murad. Along the way, through his dreams, his recollections, through the power of storytelling itself (the story of the guard, the story of the Book of Kings… ) Dastaguir tells us the story of himself, which is not the story of a doddering old man given to distraction as would seem, but the narrative of a man facing the daunting prospect of having to re-write his future history, his future identity, by aggregating his grief:
“You don’t hear the rest of the shopkeeper’s word. Your thoughts pull you inward, to where your own misery lies. Which has your sorrow become? Tears? No, otherwise you’d cry. A sword? No, you haven’t wounded anyone yet. A bomb? You’re still living. You can’t describe your sorrow; it hasn’t taken shape yet. It hasn’t had a chance to show itself. If only it wouldn’t take shape at all. If only it would fall silent, be forgotten… It will be so, of course it will… As soon as you see Murad, your son… Where are you Murad?”
Last month, while I was on vacation in Maine I was able to receive a twitter feed even though my cell and internet signals were being sucked into some sort of AT&T Black Hole. One of the tweets was from @otherpress, promising advance copies of Earth & Ashes to twitterers who replied. I was extremely eager to take advantage of this offer because I had already read The Patience Stone in print and craved more of the elegant prose of Atiq Rahimi. There is a theatrically and poeticism to The Patience Stone that’s mesmerizing. However, when I read it last February, I had read it too fast! I wanted to re-read it again when I was alone and things were quiet so I could let the novel’s own rhythm set the pace; But I’m a wife and mother with a full time job and finding that alone/quiet time was proving to be rather difficult. So for the “re-read,” I opted to listen to the audiobook. This time there would be no skimming words! I borrowed a copy from Blackstone Audio, Inc. and listened to it prior to reading Earth & Ashes.
The Patience Stone (which is actually Atiq Rahimi’s second novel; but the first to be published in the U.S.) shares stylistic qualities with Earth & Ashes: the “word reduction” process (like wine reduction) that leaves the full flavor of the setting and the characters without the impurities; the limited venues that showcase the main actions (both external and transcendent;) the importance of storytelling and; the pathos of the main characters which, while by definition evoke pity or sadness, provides the core of the character’s transformation and should not be misconstrued as a weakness.
The Patience Stone is about a woman who is caring for her husband, who appears to be in a vegetative state. In the beginning of the novel, she repeats prayers pro-forma in the hope of aiding in her husband’s recovery. Eventually, as no change in his condition registers, she abandons the prayers and starts confiding, and later confessing, … things. The name of the novel comes from the practice of telling one’s secrets and worries to a black stone (the Kaaba or a miniature version.) When the stone can take no more, it explodes. In practice, the woman’s husband becomes a patience stone.
The setting, as identified in the epigram, “Somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere,” speaks to the theatricality and the universality of the novel, a level of abstraction flavored with the Middle-East. The action takes place in one room in a home; the woman sometimes goes off-stage; the woman’s off-stage and, interior lives are revealed through a series of monologues (ostensibly dialogues as she is speaking to her husband;) but by refusing to fix any of the place(s) or people with names, the author invites the reader to think outside of the (black-) box (theater) that he has constructed and focus on the woman’s drama as she reveals the complexity of her life that happens to belie who we think she is as a Middle-Eastern woman. Once again, as in Earth & Ashes, the story of the main character is told through their dreams, recollections and other stories and; once again, the character must re-write their story using their pathos as the building material.
I was somewhat conflicted about listening to the audio. Carolyn Seymour has a wonderfully rich and expressive, but decidedly British voice. There was a part of me that wondered if removing the Middle-Eastern sensibility from the voice was going too far in the abstraction process or; whether it added to the commitment of making the novel more universal. I also got a different sense of timing from the audio reading than I did from the print. I didn’t hear the rhythm of the breathing, the telling of the beads or; sense the time as measured by the mullahs calls to prayers as much as I imagined I did when I read it the first time. Carolyn Seymour’s pace was faster, though I didn’t miss any of the details. Whether in print or in audio, and regardless of the translator, Atiq Rahimi’s writing is beautiful and thought-provoking. Great things do come in small packages.
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
By Karl Marlantes
Narrated by Bronson PInchot
Ⓟ 2010, Blackstone Audio, Inc.
- Excellent writing: From the opening lines to the close of the novel, the author immediately and effectively places the reader/listener in Vietnam, 1969. The imagery is evocative without dipping into superfluous metaphor and, the scenes resonate with physical and psychological detail;
- Excellent narration: I had one small gripe about the narrator which was that the first three of four times he says the word “gook,” he pronounces it to rhyme with “book.” The rest of the time, he pronounces the word to rhyme with “kook.” Both are correct, but the inconsistency bothered me. The times he pronounced “gook” like “book” I was taken out of the story. But outside of that, I would have to say the narration was flawless. Bronson channeled the characters and the material so effectively that he literally disappeared into the book and the characters spoke (and BTW, “Balki” does not make an appearance in any way, shape or form!)
- For the veterans: I’ve read a lot of the customer reviews posted for both the print and audio editions of this title. A lot of Vietnam veterans seem to love this book, clearly believing their story has finally been told. This book is fiction; but clearly it’s “true.” Without having read the reviews though, you would know it. There is an honesty in the writing that comes through.
- For everyone else: There’s a old adage about not judging a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. This book forces you to hump 6 clicks in a Marine’s boots. This book does what the very best of books do: enables the reader to see another point of view. There’s a great scene in the book wherein Jackson, a black Lance Corporal explains to Mellas, a white Second Lieutenant, that he (Jackson) could no more explain what it’s like to be black to Mellas than either of them could explain what its like to be in the bush to civilians. The irony is of course, is that Marlantes has explained what’s its like to be in the bush. Readers/listeners will feel like they were with Bravo Company every step of the way.