The Sun Over Breda, by Arturo Perez-Réverte

Memorial Day, honoring the military men and women who have died in service to their country, seems an appropriate time to talk about this book, third in Perez-Réverte’s Captain Alatriste series.

The story is narrated by íñigo Balboa, fourteen now, a young guttersnipe rescued by Alatriste in the first book. íñigo serves as Alatriste’s mochilero, an aide or soldier’s page, foraging for food and materiel, delivering water and ammunition to the soldiers. They are in Flanders where Alatriste’s unit has been sent to assist with the siege of Breda. The Spanish Army is trying to put down the rebellious provinces where "the conflict had become a kind of long and tedious chess game." The two sides in this long-running war are delineated more by religion than country, with Catholic Spanish and Italian troops versus Protestant Dutch and English.

íñigo is a good choice for a narrator. Young enough to feel the thrill of battle, his eyes have been opened by his twelve months in Flanders. He describes the mud and the rain, the patched clothes and worn-out boots. Because Perez-Réverte is one of my favorite authors, I was not fooled by the cover promising a swash-buckling adventure; I knew that the story would be more subtle and the characters more complex than that. There are adventures and battle scenes, but we see them through íñigo’s eyes, dazzled as he is initially by the romance, but gradually learning the stoic pragmatism and commitment to honor embodied by Captain Alatriste.

íñigo tells of how the army has not been paid and is near starving, given the way the surrounding countryside has been decimated by the long war. They actually have to mutiny in order to receive some pay, but as with every other activity in Spanish society, there are rules and protocols such that even a mutiny can be conducted and settled in an honorable way. In Alatriste’s interactions with his cadre of close companions, the officers he serves under, and the other soldiers we learn more about this fascinating man who says little and keeps to himself.

In the long stretches between actions, íñigo is learning from the men around him and intersperses his account with tidbits of history and descriptions of paragons of honor. These sidebars slow the story a little, but I appreciated the context they provide.

In the battle scenes, Perez-Réverte gives us a realistic description of warfare Seventeenth Century-style in all its brutality. Armed with pikes and harquebusiers, swords and daggers, this is face-to-face bloodshed, not pushing a button on a computer to launch a drone against a far-away enemy. Confused and horrified as he is by the chaos and bloodshed, íñigo still feels the pride and madness of the fight. Standing over the first man he has killed, all that he has experienced coalesces and he learns what it means to be a man.

I used to work with a man some fifteen years senior to me. When the U.S. launched the first Gulf War, he told me that he wished he were young enough to go. He’d fought in Vietnam, so he had no illusions about warfare, but was still caught up in the thrill of battle. I asked him how he’d feel if his then twelve-year-old son were a few years older and serving in the military. He didn’t have an answer. And it is not an easy question. What I do know is that whether I agree with all of my country’s wars or not, I respect those who fight in them and honor their courage and their sacrifice.

Searching for Caleb, by Anne Tyler

caleb

A couple of weeks ago, in discussing The Help, I said that the relationship between domestic help and their employers was more complicated than Stockton's book indicated. For a more nuanced view, I went back to this Anne Tyler novel from 1975. While the relationship between the Pecks and their long-time maid Sulie is a very small part of the story, it is a crucial one and Tyler nails it. In just a couple of scenes she captures the conflicting emotions that drive their behavior towards each other. It is a privilege to read this woman's writing.

As the story opens, Justine and her grandfather, Daniel, are on a train to New York, tracking down another lead on the whereabouts of Daniel's brother, Caleb, who walked out of the house one day in 1912 and never returned. It's human nature to want to be part of a group, whether a gang, a neighborhood, a country. For the Pecks, it's the family that defines them. They circle the wagons and don't allow anyone in. Even spouses are eventually squeezed out. And the family ties are so strong that almost no one leaves. Only Caleb. And this generation Duncan, Justine's restless cousin and husband, with her floating in his wake as he moves from town to town.

Now Daniel—who never planned to live anywhere but Roland Park, in the large house right next to his father's house, where his spinster sisters now live—has come to stay with Justine and Duncan while he and Justine search for Caleb.

Justine was always a good girl, obedient and agreeable, conforming to the expectations of the people around her, whether by wearing the hat and gloves that her aunts deem necessary for venturing out of the house, or moving from town to town when Duncan decides to up stakes and try someplace new. Marrying Duncan turns out to be one of her only two reckless moments—the other is learning to tell fortunes—but, as her baffled aunts agree, at least Duncan is a Peck. Like Caleb, Duncan would probably never have bothered to contact the family again once he left, but he has Justine to do that, and he loves her enough to go along to the rare family occasions . . . with only a little complaining.

Tyler is known for her eccentric characters, but having lived in Roland Park, I have to say that these are all people I recognise. And, knowing them, I am grateful for Tyler's gentle and compassionate hand in assembling their portraits. The older Pecks, secure in their superiority to the rest of the world, are more thoughtless than arrogant. They live in the bubble of the past, carrying on traditions from a previous century, shaking their heads at the way the world seems to be changing.

Roland Park resisted change for a long time. Even in the 1970s when this book was written, there were many families like the Pecks. I too suffered having a hat and little white gloves forced on me. People stayed where they grew up. I remember riding the back roads of Roland Park, maybe fifteen years ago, with my mother and sister as they recited for each house who lived there, what school they went to, who their parents were, what school the parents went to—and in Roland Park that means what prep school. But it is beginning to change. For some people change feels more like loss, so like the Pecks they try to preserve the world that they know. There are many ways to deal with loss, whether it comes in slow increments or with the quiet, almost unnoticed shutting of a door.

To the End of the Land, by David Grossman

While there were things I didn’t like about this book, particularly at the beginning, I have to join the chorus of praise for it. This is one of the most deeply moving books I’ve ever read and it has stayed with me long after I closed the cover.

Ora and her damaged friend, Avram, are walking the length of the country. She’d meant to go with her son, Ofer, but he’s volunteered to continue his military service for one more month so he can participate in a big operation. In her fear for him, Ofer resorts to magical thinking: if she’s not home to be notified, then he cannot be harmed. During the walk, she reconstructs Ofer’s life for Avram who has never met him and knows nothing about him. Ora’s husband, Ilan, has left her and to make matters worse their older son, Adam, has chosen to go with him.

Some people in one of my online reading groups so detest prologues that they refuse to read a book with a prologue. I can see their point, as I’ve mentioned before here and here. This novel almost pushed me into the never-read-a-book-with-a-prologue camp. 47 pages long, the prologue took me over a month to read because I kept putting the book down in frustration. Normal punctuation is missing, as are dialogue tags (he said, she said), sending me backtracking to try to figure out who is speaking. Most frustrating, though, is the lack of clarity about the characters, the situation, and the world they live in.

Three teenagers—Ora, Avram, and Ilan—are alone in a hospital during a war. I admit that I misunderstood when and where we were through almost the whole prologue. The characters seemed flat, almost caricatures, and their speech and interactions surreal. The only thing that kept me going was Deborah's strong recommendation. Once the story finally began—a straight-forward, realistic story set in the present-day with dialogue tags and punctuation—it did capture and hold my interest.

This is a book about connection: between mother and son, husband and wife, brothers, friends. It is also about the connection between people and their land, the physical land itself and their country. The writing really brought home to me what it feels like to live in a country as tenuous as Israel. Avram says, ” ‘I don’t think the Americans or the French have to believe so hard all the time just to make America exist. Or France.'” But of all the connections, it is the one to the child that goes deepest. Ora tries to convey to Avram the entirety of Ofer’s life, which of course includes her life and Ilan’s and Adam’s and what they all mean to each other, in the process drawing Avram into the family.

Although I enjoyed the descriptions of the landscape, the mountains and rocks and flowers, I suffered through the wrenching emotions. This is not an easy book to read. I found myself shrinking from picking it up, not sure I had the emotional stamina for another bout. But Grossman varies the pace well, with the many jumps in time expertly handled. From a writer's point of view, I recommend this book as a textbook on how to employ flashbacks. From a reader's point of view, I cannot recommend the book highly enough as an experience that will leave you with a deeper understanding of what it means to live in this world.

I respect the experience Grossman brings to this book. Much of the writing here is profoundly moving, conveying the emotional journey that is so much harder than any physical journey. I especially appreciate the way he captures the special relationship Israelis have with their land, so much more immediate, intense and conflicted than other citizens have with their own countries. But in the end, it is the parent’s story. I know these fears and the bargains you make with the future, the self-doubt and guilt, the adoration and the letting go. No other fiction I’ve read comes close to capturing as this book does what it means to be a parent.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

the help

I really didn’t want to read this bestseller. I had no desire to revisit the segregated South of the early 1960s, when pretty much the only job available to a woman of color was as a domestic servant. However, when my book club chose it, I gave it a try and found it to be a good read. The book flows well, moving along at a good pace. As one member of my book club said, I had no trouble turning the pages. Also, I was relieved that the book has none of the tacky slapstick I’ve seen in trailers for the film.

Returning to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi after college without the “Mrs” degree her mother expected her to earn, Skeeter wants to be a journalist. She lands a job on the local paper writing a weekly cleaning advice column, in spite of her never having cleaned anything herself. She can’t ask the loving servant who brought her up, because Constantine has mysteriously up and quit while Skeeter was away at college, so she turns to Aibileen, her friend Elizabeth’s maid, for the requisite information. Observing the way Elizabeth and Skeeter’s other childhood friend, Hilly, treat their help, Skeeter hits on the idea of interviewing domestics to get their point of view. What she doesn’t understand is just how dangerous such confidences can be for her and for any servant daring enough to speak with her.

The story is told in chapters that alternate between Skeeter, Aibileen and Aibileen’s friend and fellow servant, Minnie, a feisty woman whose big mouth has lost her many jobs. The author differentiates the three voices well, but I appreciated each having her own chapter. A framework for these personal stories is provided by the nascent civil rights movement, which is presented (accurately, I think) as rumors from the outside world.

Recently one of my own childhood friends mentioned how lucky we were to have the love and guidance of these extra parental figures. She’s right, but of course the relationship was vastly more complicated. Even as a child I wondered who cared for our maid’s children while she fixed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for us. At the same time I understood that, as my mother pointed out, we were providing jobs and financial sustenance for women who had few other options.

To her credit, Stockett uses Skeeter’s research to open up the “Mammy” myth from Gone with the Wind: the belief that servants are part of the family, loving and beloved. For instance, Aibileen talks about how when the children grow up enough to learn their parents’ prejudices, she moves on to work for another family with younger children.

However, I don’t think Stockett goes far enough. The good characters are very good, and the bad characters are awful. More inner conflict for them would make the story more realistic–not, I hasten to add, that there weren’t people who behaved as badly as the villains here, but in my experience there’s a least some redeeming feature. Also, having been a servant myself, though without the burden of racial prejudice, I would expect that love for the employer’s children would not be unmixed with other emotions. Similarly, friendship of a sort can certainly exist between employer and domestic, but when my mother declared that she and her maid were best friends, I could only shake my head at her naïveté.

These relationships are complicated. And I think Stockett could have captured more of that complexity instead of falling back on Pollyannas and happy endings. While I congratulate her for tackling the issue at all and for working so hard to capture voices from both sides, I would much rather have read a story written by a woman of color who had worked as a domestic servant and who could therefore have created more genuine characters.

Epitaph for a Peach, by David Mas Masumoto

I don't buy peaches in the grocery store anymore. Either they rot before getting ripe or they have no flavor. I'm lucky to have alternatives: nearby farms and farmers' markets where I can find good peaches.

This memoir opens with the shocking image of Masumoto expecting to have to bring in the bulldozers to rip out his orchard of peach trees. These healthy and productive trees produce Sun Crest peaches, an heirloom strain with amazing flavor but a short shelf life and mild color.

As suppliers constantly tell Masumoto, consumers only care about the color and markets need fruit that can be shipped long distances without spoiling. To meet this demand, nurseries compete to come up with the next flavor-of-the-month strain of fruit. This surprised me. I would expect it of peas or tomatoes or other annuals, but the time investment in fruit trees seems so great that a quick turnover to catch a market boom in the popularity of a particular strain would be impossible. It would be like a writer trying to imitate some new popular book, not realising that by the time her book is written and published, an entirely different kind of book will have captured the public's imagination.

And of course, the suppliers are wrong. At least, I think I'm not the only consumer who cares much more about flavor than color. I'd pretty much stopped eating apples because they were so bland, but now we have lots of heirloom kinds of apples available. Same thing with tomatoes. I would love to try a Sun Crest peach.

Masumoto's descriptions of farm life are lovely: blossoms in the spring, weighing a peach in your hand to determine ripeness, spreading grapes on paper trays to dry in the sun, pruning branches for the best growth. He talks a lot about the relationship between the farm and family, not just his wife and children but his parents and grandparents. He remembers and beautifully describes the way his grandmother, his baachan, walked in from the fields.

His grandparents came to the U.S. from Japan and were following the hard working emigrant path when World War II started and they, like other Japanese-Americans, were sent to detention camps. After they got out, even though they were middle-aged, they decided to save and buy their own land. Masumoto's father stayed to work the farm his parents bought, the land that the author now farms, producing peaches and raisins.

Masumoto has a lovely voice, calm and straightforward, even when describing the indignities of the camps and the way neighbors helped themselves to the belongings left behind. His attitude is both realistic, especially about the difficulties of making a family farm successful, and idealistic. He still believes that there are people out there who will want his peaches and that he can support his family, even as he describes the vagaries of the weather that can wipe out a crop of raisins in a day, and migrant workers whose unavailability can cause a disastrous delay at harvest time. Unsparing of himself, he is quick to own up to his mistakes and naïveté.

In the end, this account is a realistic depiction of life on a family farm. I've worked on a dairy farm, but cultivating trees calls for a very different relationship with time. I agonised with Masumoto over whether trees had grown too old to be productive or what path a threatening storm might take. I rejoiced with him on finding a much-needed antique defuzzer in a shed and in taking twilight walks through the vineyards with his young children. Anyone interested in locavore issues or who just wants to be immersed in a different sort of life for a while will enjoy this book.