Thursday, April 26, 2012

New York Winters

At the end of 2010, I read A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin, and I liked it, but I couldn't say that it was life changing.  For some reason, after that, I picked up another book by Helprin, Winter's Tale, and added it to my nightstand, where it has sat, waiting for me to read it.  As part of the Off the Shelf Challenge, I am trying to plow through the books that have been just sitting around my house not being read, and I came to Helprin's book.  Now I only wish that I had read it in 1983 when it was first released.  In the right hands, Winter's Tale could change lives.

Winter's Tale begins with Peter Lake trying to make his way in New York City in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The city is a rough and magical place, which only becomes more surreal when Peter meets Beverly Penn, a wealthy girl, dying of consumption, who takes him to her family's vacation home in the Lake of the Coheeries.  The descriptions of the Penn home, and especially of Beverly's rooftop sleeping deck are amazing.  Likewise, the descriptions of New York City during the hard winters of the early 20th century are enough to make one want to travel back through time.  Without giving away the whole story, we fast forward to 1995, meet new characters, and reunite with some from the past.  One of the modern day characters is seeking a perfectly just city.  Many of the others find work at the enlightened newspaper, The Sun, which is constantly battling to stay ahead of its better funded counterpart, The Ghost.  All of the characters seem to be living in a charmed, golden age, where harsh winters and cloud walls hide secrets that defy the concept of time.

The story in Winter's Tale screams to be interpreted for Biblical meaning.  Most obviously, the white horse, Athansor, invokes the image of Aslan, the lion in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe who was said to represent Jesus.  It is less clear to me who is who if I compare Helprin's human characters to their Biblical peers.  We have a fallen angel, who may be the devil.  Could Peter Lake be Jesus, or is Athansor Jesus?  Some characters seem immortal, and others rise from their graves.  I would love to talk to other people who have read this book about whether they feel certain characters may have been intended to represent figures from the New Testament.   Each summer, The Typical Book Group reads a Big Fat Book (BFB), and this year I have recommended Winter's Tale.  If they pick this one, I will be sorry to not have a new BFB assigned for me to read this summer, but excited to see what they thought about it.

An interesting feature of this book is that Helprin wrote it in 1983, predicting the future with specific focus on New York at the turn of the millennium, but I read it in 2012, with New Year's Eve of 2000 now seeming like the distant past.  Helprin predicts fires that will try to destroy New York at the turn of the century.  Speaking of the fire, Praeger de Pinto, who is then the Mayor of New York says "The city's not going to burn forever.  We're going to rebuild it. . . If this fire stops at night, we'll begin to rebuild on the next morning.  If it stops in the morning, we'll begin to rebuild in the afternoon.  When that happens, I want all the arsonists to be dead, and I want anyone who even entertains the idea of lighting a match to be able to remember what happened to the people who started this fire."  Couldn't you just hear Giuliani saying that on September 12, 2001?  How about this description:  "The bridges were crowded with uncountable thousands of refugees who streamed across their darkened roadways . . . They walked in stunned silence, children on their backs, briefcases and bundles in their hands.  The streets became a huge rag-and-bone shop as people carried off an infinite assortment of objects that they wanted to save."  Doesn't that sound just like the images of people leaving their offices to walk home on September 11?

I listened to the book on CD in my car, and then read ahead at home.  The audio book reader, Oliver Wyman, was amazing.  He had distinct and true voices for each of at least 20 characters, all of which seemed to fit them perfectly.  I would listen to Wyman read again any time.

In my humble opinion, this is one of the best books ever written, and it will definitely be on my list of Favorites.  Helprin's character development is fantastic, his scene descriptions are second to none, and although the stories twist and turn, they come together just as they should.  For some reason, this was not a NYT Editor's Choice Book (the 1980s equivalent of the Notable Book), and in fact, no book by Helprin has ever won any awards.  This is astounding, and disappointing to me.  NYT gave Helprin an excellent review, which you should read if I have not yet convinced you to read Winter's Tale.   Rumor has it that Winter's Tale may be made into a movie starring Will Smith.  Based on how well I have thought that The Help and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close have been interpreted on the big screen, I will be first in line to buy tickets.

So, Go. Get. It. And. Read.  Really.

Next up on CD:  Lit by Mary Karr

Next up on Paper:  Not Becoming My Mother by Ruth Reichl

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