Review: The Master's Muse

Monday, July 23, 2012

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Dancers don't last long. Ballet shapes the body into unnatural poses of beauty and exacts a price of stress, injury and endless rehearsals that would challenge even the greatest athelete. A dancer's time is brief, their work all the more transcedent because of its impermanence.

For Tanaquil Le Clercq, the fifth wife of George Balanchine, legendary Russian choregrapher who almost single-handedly shaped the direction of 20th century ballet, this fact became brutally clear all too early. Le Clerq, the prototype for a Balanchine ballerina, was struck down by polio at the age of twenty-seven in 1956.

O'Connor, a four-time novelist whose father suffered from the disease, imagines her way into the mind of the famously private Le Clercq from the moment she contracts polio through her much-publicized divorce from Balanchine, their tenuous reconciliation and on to his death in 1981.

O'Connor does a brilliant job of creating a strong voice for Le Clercq. Although we only see glimpses of her childhood and her courtship with Balanchine in flashbacks, the reader gets a strong sense of Le Clercq's life and how her experiences informed her subsequent choices. I was both disappointed and surprised to see O'Connor ignore Le Clercq's dancing days. It's a brave choice for an author - we meet Le Clercq after she has lost her greatest ability. The decision results in a unique perspective on Le Clercq - we know her only as a cripple and an estranged wife. We see her in her worst moments and only experience her best moments in flashback. This dilutes the brutal impact of polio but it also make Le Clercq more flawed and human.

Muse isn't limited by Le Clercq's perspective. A cast of well-drawn secondary characters make the era of 1950 and 60s dance come alive while their joys and sorrows serve as a background chorus to the story of Le Clercq's life, enhancing her emotions. O'Connor recreates the legendary Balanchine through gesture and detail. The great man remains mysterious in many ways and as inaccessible and baffling to the reader as he was to Le Clercq. But through the accumulation of small gestures and details - frantic, restless movements and a love of Tolstoy's War and Peace - he becomes a real person. At times, the novel is almost too focused on Balanchine to the discredit of Le Clercq who was a strong woman in her own write and built an admirable life of writing and teaching after contracting polio.

Muse remains curiously distant from the world of ballet, never fully explaining why dancers remain so dedicated to this demanding art but it does lay bare the heart of a great dancer and the husband who gave her such joy and pain.

Extra:

The Master's Muse received some attention recently for fictionalizing the life of a public figure who died only a decade ago. For readers interested in the debate over fictionalizing a real person's life and the line when private becomes public, a lived life becomes history, check out the two sides of the argument here:

PRO

CON



Review: Caravans

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

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Caravans, James Michener's 1963 novel about the then-largely unknown country of Afghanistan, is a historical novel in more ways than one. Written sixteen years before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that would spark three decades of war, Caravans takes the reader even farther back than Michener's own time to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in the days just after the end of World War II. 


Part of what makes this novel so fascinating is that the reader knows more about Afghan history than Michener did while writing it and Michener knows more than the characters because he has placed a 16-year gap between them and his own time. The layers of history almost spread out before the readers' eyes, lending a poignant depth to the story. 

Michener traveled extensively in Afghanistan and when asked, often said that it was the country he most wanted to return to. His love for the Afghan people and culture shines through in this book. I wrote my college thesis on Afghanistan, have produced several television series that have aired there and traveled to Kabul last spring. I could not find a single error in Michener's work and loved the way he was able to incorporate so much fascinating history and culture into the novel while still keeping up with the fast-paced plot. I enjoyed the opening chapters in Kabul the most - Michener brilliantly captures the feelings of his main character Mark Miller, a young State Department employee. Miller experiences a mixture of awe, fear, confusion and excitement as he discovers Afghanistan. There are some beautiful moments when Miller pauses and looks out at the mountains surrounding Kabul and feels a sense of timelessness that I remember experiencing during my own time there. 

But Caravans isn't just a history lesson or a travel essay - it also has an engaging plot set in motion by a young American girl named Ellen Jaspar who meets an Afghan student, falls in love and marries him against her parents' wishes. After returning to Afghanistan, Ellen disappears and it's Miller's job to trek across the deserts and mountains to find her. Ellen is a kind of proto-hippie, rebelling against the structures of modern society. Placing her within the context of Afghan culture makes for some very interesting moral and sociological questions. 

Michener doesn't entirely overcome the gender bias of his own time - he makes it clear that Ellen is a flighty, manipulative girl while Miller, who seduces a nomad girl and then abandons her with barely a look backwards, is just doing what men do. There are also some disturbing moments early on when Miller seems excited rather than repelled by seeing women in burkas. From a historical perspective, it's interesting to see how people viewed the question of women wearing hijab prior to major US involvement in the region but I was turned off by Miller's obvious "Oriental" fantasies. Despite these reservations, I would strongly urge readers to give Caravans a try - you'll barely notice how much you're learning about Afghanistan in the course of an exciting story. 

Review: A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar

Saturday, July 7, 2012

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Composed of equal parts old-school travel adventure story and modern day clash of cultures narrative, I started Kashgar convinced that I was about to discover a new favorite book. The first strand of the parallel narratives following Eva, a British woman who travels through Central Asia by bicycle in the 1920s, reminded me of the great travelers Freya Stark and Gertrude Bell who mapped large swathes of the Middle East in the final decades of the British Empire. Unfortunately, Eva has little to no personality. Joinson clearly means for her to undergo a dramatic transformation in the course of her journey, shedding her old life and beliefs. But Eva fails to leap off the page - even while narrating her own story in a series of journal entries meant to eventually become the guidebook of the title.

The discovery of new lands and cultures and the conflicts between Muslims and Chinese take a back seat to the tiresomely repetitive quarrels between Eva and her companions. After a dramatic opening chapter in which Eva witnesses a woman die giving birth and saves the baby, the narrative keeps the women trapped in a hot compound. After reading what felt like the tenth description of dust, sun and sweat, I was desperate to hear about anything else.

Fortunately, Eva's narrative in the 1920s alternates with the story of a woman named Frieda living in present-day London. I was initially drawn in by Joinson's sharp portrayal of Frieda's modern-day dislocation working as a Muslim world researcher. There are finely observed passages in the beginning, perfectly capturing how it feels to be a woman travelling in the Muslim world and trying to fit in. But that early momentum is lost when Frieda catches a homeless Yemeni man sleeping on her doorstep. Their encounter pretty much follows a paint by numbers cultural clash approach complete with the adoption of a poor pet owl who is asked to bear a heavy metaphorical responsibility. None of these characters are real people - they are the Emotionally Disconnected Western Woman and the Mystical Sensitive Middle Eastern Man.

The two narratives entwine only in the most obvious way - I was able to identify the connection from the first few chapters - and had no sense of why past and present interacted in a way that illuminated the other. I was also a bit disturbed by the careless parallel the novel was asking me to accept - British women meet Muslims in Central Asia is the same as a British woman meeting a Muslim Yemeni. Are we really still comparing people of wildly different cultures and geographical backgrounds simply because they happen to share a religion along with more than billion other people? This is a tiresome and lazy parallel seemingly designed for a superficial book club discussion.

Joinson does write beautifully - I continued reading only because I appreciated her poet's ability to show how landscape can illuminate a character's emotional life. Because of this, I'd be willing to take a look at her next book. Perhaps her prose, used with a stronger grasp of plot and character and a more sophisticated sense of culture and history will result in an engaging novel.

I received this copy for review from the publisher through NetGalley.