Friday, January 22, 2010

January in the Tropics by guest blogger Steven Head

One of the joys of reading is being able to journey to a warm sunny place even though the temperature outside is below freezing, the wind is howling, and the snow is more than knee deep. And January is the perfect time for searching or stumbling upon such a read. Here is a candidate.

I was listening to a radio program on books at the end of the year and caught Barbara Kingsolver discussing her new novel, The Lacuna. Barbara was talking about wanting to write of the atmosphere and mind set of the 1950's and how America was capable of doing some shameful things. I cannot claim to be a fan of Ms. Kingsolver, having read only one book Bev pointed me to with "beans" in the title. But I decided to investigate.

The Lacuna concerns the life of Harrison Shepherd, the product of a governmental accountant and a Mexican whirlwind. The book starts with Shepherd at the age of 12 with his mother in Isla Pixol, Mexico. A warm sunny place. The marriage of his parents had dissolved and his mother was involved in one of many relationships with men she hoped would take care of her and make life easy. The first half of the book is a delightful tale moving about Mexico, popping up in Washington, D.C. among the Bonus Marchers of 1932, and returning to Mexico to work and live along side Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Lev Trotsky.

We experience this time through the writings of Shepherd both in retrospect and through journal entries. The use of language is pleasing and the adventures keep you turning the pages. I cannot attest to the historic accuracy of the events of that time although the Bonus Marchers, the attacks and murder of Trotsky by Stalinists, and the flamboyance and conflicts of Rivera and Kahlo appear consistent with agreed upon facts. The descriptions and accounts of the initial half flow like a river and the reader happily bobs along observing it from an comfy innertube.

The second half of this 500 page novel does not move as gracefully. Told in journal entries, newspaper clippings, letters, and official documents, we learn of Shepherd's life as he returns to the US to pursue a writing career. Given his proximity to the known Communists Rivera, Kahlo, and Trotsky, Shepherd gets caught up in the anti-communist frenzy of the late 1940's and early 1950's. But not before establishing himself as a success author writing historic novels of Mexico, ancient civilizations, and foreign conquerors.

Early in the book we encounter an entry by Violet Brown, the self-proclaimed archivist of the documents we are reading. In the second half we learn how Shepherd and Brown joined forces and the dynamics of their non-romantic relationship. And how Ms. Brown assembled the documents for release long after the death of both parties.

The images and language of this book are enchanting. Writing of his mother following her death he observes,

"How could a life of such large hopes be so small in the end? Her last apartment: one room above a lace-and-girdle shop. One trunk of frocks and phonograph records, donated to a coworker. Every casa chica was smaller than the one before. Were the beaux less generous over time? Her assets less marketable? If she had lived to be old, would she have resided in a teacup, to be sipped at intervals beneath some gray moustache?"

Ms. Kingsolver does not sprout books like tulip bulbs in the spring. The Lacuna is her first novel in 7 years. Is it her best effort? I cannot say. I can attest that Ms. Kingsolver offers both a believable masculine voice in Harrison Shepherd and a formal feminine voice in Ms. Brown. And by the end of the novel you know them and are sad their story has ended.
Thanks Steve!
What am I reading? Just finished The 19th Wife (novel about of one of Brigham Young's wives) and moved on to Push, the inspiration for the movie "Precious." Brutal book. To offset that, I picked up a new release called "Being Jane Eyre," a fictional account of the lives of the Bronte sisters.
Thanks for stopping.

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