Archive for October, 2010

Since I have had a slight academic focus lately (The Small Room and Old School) I think I need to bump All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, by Samantha Chang, higher on the TBR list.  The novel is about three students of poetry and their professor and reflects on what it means to accomplish something and why to we want to do so.  S. Krishna reviews the book here.

I have not read The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty which won the Pulitzer in 1973.  The slim novel describes a young widowed woman who travels back home to the south when her father falls ill.  As Rachel of Book Snob describes, “This whisper-light, brief beauty of a novel is astounding when considering the true weight of the messages it carries.” – who could resist after a description like that.

This week my book group had an interesting discussion on looking back to the past and making some sort of acknowledgment of what occurred and some reflection on where we are now.  And then I read a review of Safe from the Sea on Page 247 – a tragic accident at sea, the impact on the sole survivor and his family and a looking back so we can go forward. This one looks like it may be a good one.

Last Sunday, I mentioned The Wrong Blood by Manuel de Lope and this week it is reviewed by the New York Times here.

The Times also reviews God on the Rocks, a 1978 novel just now available in the United States by Jane Gradam, an English author.  A coming of age story, a part-time preacher for a father, a secular nursemaid, and exploring the world – it all sounds like a hodgepodge but it also sounds somewhat fascinating.

My musings have been interrupted a lot today so I cannot remember where I saw mention of this next book: Origins: A Novel by Diane Abu-Jaber which is described as a literary mystery.  Lena is a fingerprint specialist investigating a series of baby deaths but the novel is also about Lena’s past.  I am in the mood for a mystery with a little more bite so I have placed a hold on this and will let you know when I finish.

Enjoy the fall leaves while they last and happy reading.



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Old School

“Make no mistake,” he (Robert Frost) said. “A true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life.” (pg. 46)

I have read this poem (Frost, The Mending Wall”) and thought I understood it. But in Frost’s voice the scene became newly vivid, and I caught something I’d missed; that for all the narrator’s ironic superiority, the neighbor had his truth too. The image of him moving in the shadows like an old-stone savage armed – he himself was a good reason to have a wall, the living proof of his own argument that good fences make good neighbors. Maybe something doesn’t like a wall, but take it down at your own peril. (pg. 49)

I have never read anything by Tobias Wolff who is primarily a short-story writer but when I learned the Non-structured Group was reading this book for October, I decided to join in.

Old School takes place in a New England boarding school in the 1960’s and is narrated by a scholarship student in his last year at the school.  We learn the narrator is escaping from a mundane existence with his father in a small apartment on the west coast. He finds himself in an environment where class and circumstances are not mentioned but matter a great deal and his spends a lot of his time hiding his background. Walls are very apparent in Wolff’s work: class walls, walls between teachers and students, walls between a person and their writing, walls everywhere.  In some respects, you come away with a feeling of isolation while reading this novel.

At this school, it is a tradition to have visiting writers come and speak to the students.  In addition, the school has a writing contest with the winner picked by the author and rewarded with a private audience.  Robert Frost is the first author,  followed by Ayn Rand.  When it is announced that Ernest Hemmingway is to be the final author of the year, there is a great scramble among the students to prepare a work worthy of Hemmingway’s approval.  It is this contest that unsettles the school and leads to some severe consequences.

I enjoyed the book and its discussion of writing and literature but I was unsure of exactly what the author was trying to say about writing.  It seemed that many of the people in the novel had walls up including the two authors, Frost and Rand and I found the final thoughts on the act of writing somewhat disquieting – how much of the writer should appear in his or her writing and is total honesty from a writer possible? What walls should be in place, if any at all? These are important questions; ones that I don’t think are fully answered by the author which may well be his intention.

The life that produces writing cannot be written about. It is a life carried on within the knowledge even of the writer, below the mind’s business and nose, in deep unlit shafts where phantom messengers struggle toward us, killing one another along the way: and when a few survivors break through to our attention the are received as blandly as waiters bring more coffee.

No true account can be given of how and why you become a writer, nor is there any movement of which you can say: this is when I became a writer. It gets all cobbled together later, more or less sincerely, and after the stories have been revealed they put on the badge of memory and block all other routes of exploration. There is something to be said for this. It’s efficient, and may even provide a homeopathic tincture of the truth. (pg. 156)

Old School has an autobiographical feel to it and it has wonderful passages describing the affection the narrator has for the school as well as the relationship between Master and Student. I also enjoyed the sections on the writing process and was please to see my habit of transcribing long sections of authors’ writing discussed as a worthwhile thing. I loved the sections with Ayn Rand, in part because I have never been able to relate to her work and Wolff was able to articulate why I feel that way.  And I thought his portrayal of Rand was amusing.

One of the threads I found interesting in this novel was the exploration of the relationship between father and son.  The narrator would speak about his father and the reader had a strong sense of the way things stood between the two.  But there was also a subtle undercurrent of the association between teacher and student as well as between teacher and school which echoed the traditional father/son relationship. I felt this thread added depth and nuance to the storyline.  I also appreciated the “rivalry” the teachers had about different writers something that remains true among readers.  We each have our favorite authors and we can become very fierce in advocating for our preferred choices.

All in all a very good choice for a read and I am grateful for the Non-Structured Group for choosing something I don’t think I would have heard of let along pick up and read.

Other Reviews:

what we have here is a failure to communicate: nonsense by sarah

Lizzy’s Literary Life

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Words for Wednesday

We are having a beautiful fall but the days and nights are turning colder; soon all the colorful leaves will be on the ground and the geese will start flying southward.

The Geese

by Jane Mead

slicing this frozen sky know
where they are going—
and want to get there.
Their call, both strange
and familiar, calls
to the strange and familiar
heart, and the landscape
becomes the landscape
of being, which becomes
the bright silos and snowy
fields over which the nuanced
and muscular geese
are calling—while time
and the heart take measure.

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Book Stack

I was feeling book poor so while doing my errands, I stopped by the Valley branch of the Library.  I’m not sure why I feel that way as there are plenty of books on my horizon:

Dangerous Neighbors and Man in the woods are waiting on hold for me at another branch.

Driftless needs to be read by next Monday for book group.

And I also have Small Room by May Sarton which needs to be finished by the 31st for an on-line discussion.

But I stopped by anyway and passed on Booker Prize listers C by McCarthy – after Long Song and Room I felt I needed a prize list break. I also passed on Mr. Peanut as I hear it can be challenging to read.

And I picked up two from my To Be Read List (whittling it down slowly) and one I haven’t heard of but struck my interest. The Birth of Love doesn’t hit any of my “have to read” buttons but it did sound interesting.  Black Water Rising was one of the first books to go on the TBR list when I first started looking at Reading Blogs on the internet. And I also got a book of short stories published in 2003. So here is the list with details from the book jackets:

The Birth of Love by Joanna Kavenna:  From the winner of the Orange Award for New Writers, a gripping novel of childbirth – past, present, and future.  In Vienna in 1865, Dr. ignaz Semmelweis has been hounded into an asylum by his medical peers, ridiculed for his claim that doctor’s unwashed hands are the root cause of childbed fever. In present-day London, Bridget Hughs juggles the needs of her young son, husband, and mother as she plans for her home birth, unprepared for the trial she is about to endure. Somewhere in 2153, in a world where humans are birthed and raised in breeding farms, Prisoner 730004 is on trial for concealing a pregnancy…The Birth of Love is a powerful novel of science and faith, madness and compromise, and the epic journey of motherhood.

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke: Jay Porter is hardly the lawyer he set ot to be. His most promising client is a low-rent call girl and he runs his fledgling law practice out of a dingy strip mall. But he’s long since made peace with not living the American Dream and carefully tucked away his darkest sins: the guns, the FBI file, the trial that nearly destroyed him.

Houston, Texas, 1981. It is here that Jay believes he can make a fresh start. That is, until the night in a boat out on the bayou when he impulsively saves a woman from drowning…Her secrets put Jay in danger…But before he can get to the bottom of a tangled mystery that reaches into the upper echelons of Houston’s corporate power brokers, Jay must confront the demons of his past.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer: Packer dazzles with her command of language, surprising and delighting us with unexpected turns and indelible images, as she takes us into the lives of characters on the periphery, unsure of where they belong.  We meet a Brownie troop of black girls who are confronted with a troop of white girls; a young man who goes with his father to the Million Man March and must decide where his allegiance lies; an international group of drifters in Japan who are starving, unable to find work; a girl in a Baltimore ghetto who has dreams of the larger world she has seen only on the screens in the television store nearby, where the Lithuanian storekeeper holds out hope for obtaining his own American dream.

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The Tricking Of Freya

Her words swirl your mind, a vast milky way of glittery word-stars, most of it far beyond your grasp, but you’re use to that, to being drawn into word-spells that riff like the jazz music she plays on her phonograph late at night. But sped up, 78 rpm, talking faster than the speed of light. Getting talky your mother calls it.  Birdie’s getting talky. Sometimes Birdie gets so talky she stops making sense.  That’s when your mother says Birdie is going over. Over what? But not tonight. You hear logic in Birdie’s voice even if you can’t follow it. (pg. 4)

The Tricking of Freya, Christina Sunley’s debut novel, is a long letter written by Freya to her cousin; a cousin she never knew about until Freya was in her thirties. The letter describes how, at the age of seven, Freya and her mother travel to Gimli, a small town in Canada, to meet Freya’s grandmother and aunt, her mother’s sister Birdie. Freya and her family are descended from Icelanders who immigrated to Canada when a volcano rendered their land in Iceland unusable. Descended from poets, words and language are very important to Birdie and, eventually to Freya herself.

The first part of the book documents Freya meeting with and interacting with these new relatives every summer for seven years.  The letter also goes on to illustrate the good and bad days of her aunt Birdie and Sunley, beautifully describes Freya’s mercurial aunt – her charisma, her venom, and her almost magnetic draw to the young girl and vice-versa.  Birdie is very connected to her Icelandic heritage and introduces Freya to the language, history, literature, and lore of Iceland.

After a disastrous trip to Iceland, Freya doesn’t see her relatives for many years. It is only her Grandmother’s hundredth birthday that brings her back to Gimli and she learns of a family secret that sends her back to the country of her heritage to try and untangle the threads of her family’s life.  The final part of the book covers this trip to Iceland and Freya eventually uncovers all the “tricks” people have played on her and she also gains a greater understanding of her own nature in the process.

Freya is very bitter about life and feels responsible for what has happened to her mother and to Birdie, a responsibility that leads to a great deal of guilt and unworthiness.  In the beginning, this bitterness threatens to overtake the novel but once you get deeper into Freya’s story, the reasons behind the bitterness are explained and you feel for this young girl who was unable to lay her burdens down.

This book is so entwined with Iceland, the ethos of its people and the land so much so that the land almost becomes a character.  There are many Icelandic words, however I would just skim the word to get a sense so I was able to maintain a flow. If you are someone who needs to read word for word, the Icelandic language may make the book a little jerky.

Take beautiful passages like: What I fear most is not that I won’t be able to remember the trip with Birdie but that I will. It is wedged deep in my memory, lodged in the nether-crevice that separates not remembering from forgetting.  And then add the unique and wondrous landscape of Iceland, guilt, memory, and family secrets, and they all combine for a lustrous first novel.  I look forward to seeing what Christina Sunley comes up with next.

And check out the cover art – one of the most unique and beautiful covers I have come across lately.

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Our beautiful fall weather has turned to rain here but the drippy stuff held off so we could watch the GSL JV/Frosh Cross Country Championships yesterday.  It is so good to see the hard work these young people put into this sport come to fruition.  Youngest didn’t run – he will run next Saturday at Regionals. Eldest came home to celebrate his 21st birthday, eat some home cooking, and recharge his batteries.  And my library stack is dwindling – I am starting to get that slight, oh my what will I read next feeling which is silly as I have plenty to read and adding to the list each Sunday.

Let’s Take the Long Way Home, by Gail Caldwell, sounds like a great memoir to read and after reading S. Krisna’s review I went to check availability at the library.  Their copy is an MP3 CD and seeing as I am technologically challenged I will have to figure out just how to use it before ordering.  Darn!  A well written book about two writers who become friends and then one of them dies – a book of friendship and loss – sounds so good.

Jen at Devourer of Books discusses the debut novel of Christina Henriquez, The World in Half, about a young woman who slowly losing her mother to early onset Alzheimer’s disease.  While tending her, she discovers a secret about her father, a Panamanian man who supposedly abandoned her mother.  Miraflores travels to Panama in order to find out more about her father and her heritage.

I love the randomness of the internet.  I was reading an interview with Publisher Judith Gurewich of The Other Press which led me to their website and the description of The Wrong Blood which takes place in Northern Spain just before, during, and after the civil war.  The war’s impact on two women and a local doctor are revealed slowly when a grandson of one of the woman spends a summer in the area. Unfortunately it is not yet in the library system so it has to go on the TBR list.

For short story lovers, comes Reasons For and Advantages  of Breathing by Lydia Peele and mentioned by Beth Fish Reads. These eight stories, which include three prize winners, are focused on the conflict of the more simpler past and the more technologically complex present.  Beth writes “he southern setting, the exploration of how technology can change our lives, the lingering days of the innocence of childhood . . . these factors alone would make this a must-read book.”  In reviews, Peele is mentioned alongside of such greats as Flannory O’Connor and Alice Munro- auspicious company to be among.  Large Hearted Boy also has a brief interview with Peele as well as a playlist here.

Finally, I am trying to not even look at Giller short list reviews until I have finished the Booker Prize list but I am unsuccessful.  Kevin from Canada writes a wonderful view of Joan Thomas’ Curiosity an historical novel based on the real life of Mary Anning, a curiosity seller and self-taught paleontologist in the 1820’s.  It is not yet available in the United States but Kevin is an excellent reviewer and his comments on the book were enjoyable to read.

Happy reading.

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Last Night in Montreal

No one stays forever. On the morning of her disappearance Lilia woke early and lay still for a moment in the bed.  It was the last day of October. She slept Naked. (pg. 1)

But he played that morning back so many times that the tape was ruined…Later he was certain that the first few playbacks of that last morning were reasonably accurate, but after a few too many nights of laying awake and considering things, the quality erodes. (pg 2)

With a few deft strokes we are introduced to Lilia and Eli.  Lilia doesn’t know how to stay in one place having traveled most of her life, saying “I’m not arriving anywhere; I’m only leaving somewhere else.” (pg. 72)  We find out a very young Lilia walked out of her mother’s house one snowy evening into her father’s arms and they have been traveling ever since moving every few days.  As an adult, she ends up in New York and begins a relationship with Eli who works a meaningless job in an art gallery and struggles to complete his graduate thesis on dead and dying languages.  After a few months, Lilia leaves and Eli is devastated. He later receives a mysterious clue about her whereabouts and he follows her to Montreal.

Besides Lilia and Eli, the novel is populated by few characters: Christopher, the detective hired to find Lilia, Christopher’s daughter, and Lilia’s father.  Lilia’s mother and brother also appear briefly but they play a major part in the events that take place.  Much of the novel is Lilia remembering her time on the road, Eli trying to find Lila, and Christopher’s growing obsession with the case.  In the end we learn a great deal about the “whys” of these characters.

The language of the novel is incredible and Mandel creates layers upon layers in a way that adds a great deal of depth without losing the simplicity of the story.  There are many references to the myth of Icarus which becomes an important image in the novel.  Vanishing is also an important concept – beyond Lilia’s constant vanishing, Eli studies languages that are dying:

He had become obsessed with the untranslatable…every language on earth contains at least one crucial concept that cannot be translated. Not just a word but an idea, like the French deja-vu: perfect and crystalline in its native language, otherwise explainable only by entire clumsy foreign paragraphs or not at all…If you accept this, he told her, this premise that every language holds something that exists in no other tongue, an entity for outweighing the sum of its words, then the loss takes on a staggering weight. (pg. 17)

What happens when something of such magnitude is lost? When the last person is gone, who will serve witness? Questions like these permeate Mandel’s work leaving the reader contemplating the nature of memory, personal worth, and the connections we have with ourselves and each other.  Yet the novel is remarkably easy to read.  At one point I thought Mandel was being repetitive and circular in her narration but by the time you get to the end, the structure makes sense with the meat of the story; the circular nature of the narration reflects the meandering journey of Lilia and her father.  Mandel’s writing is wonderful and I had a hard time choosing passages to highlight.  I would highly recommend this novel.

Last night when I was bebopping around the Internet I came across a site called Largehearted Boy which is mostly a music blog which also covers books and pop culture.  He has a feature where he interviews authors about their work and asks them what music they listened to while writing or for a mixtape relating to their work.

His interview with Emily St. John Mandel may be found here and, like her work, it was very interesting.

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The Language of Trees

Though he hasn’t been back here in five years, he can still tell time by the color of water, which changes from rose at dawn, to dark gray-green in the afternoon, to a rusty gold patina in the evening…the lake is still in motion.  Its restlessness has always calmed him.  He looks out at the trees, the way they seem to be pulling the dew across the uncut grass.  Felled branches crisscross the lawn. The scent of destruction that tore through them last night is still in the air.  The oaks are breathless. (pgs 9-10)

In The Language of Trees, Ilie Ruby writes about what happens when two people come back home to face the past.  Echo O’Connell, orphaned at a young age, comes home to take care of the uncle who raised her.  Grant Shongo, son of the local doctor, comes home after his wife divorces him.  Home is Canandaigua Lake and Grant and Echo were high school sweethearts.  Throw in a mystery of a missing young mother, the sister of a boy who drowned in the lake many years before, and you have a compelling debut novel.  Ruby, a painter and short story author sets the novel in her childhood summer home in upstate New York.

In interviews, Ruby discusses the important role a sense of plays has in the story and that sense definitely comes through to the reader.  Nature and setting are very much characters in this novel from the trees, to the play of light on the water to the lay of the land – the lake, the houses, the mountains and hills.  Ruby also uses the history of the region to push the story forward particularly how the Seneca Indians modeled their lives to fit within the landscape.  All of which the author incorporates into the story using descriptive, “painterly” language.

In the midst of the setting, Ruby explores how people protect themselves from hurt and loss, what people hold inside of themselves and what they struggle to let go of. She also explores the role that secrets play in our lives and how them impact us as individuals as well as the relationships we have with other people, and with place itself. My book-group enjoyed this book, even the mystical aspects that Ruby brings into the story through dreams and other occurrences. While we had many questions about why Ruby made some of the choices she made, just going over those questions made for an interesting discussion.

I felt the book was a little over worked and needed some resting along with all the kneading.  So, much like a pie, the overall pie was good but the crust could have been a little better.  I think the novel could have been a little more refined and perhaps we would not have questions why she had this character doing this or why she didn’t play this character up more and this one less.  However, this debut novel is well worth reading.

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Words for Wednesday

There are many different reasons for reading: escape, enlightenment, knowledge, for the sheer pleasure of hearing the words in your mind; and having help along the way, through a book group, a book reviewer, or just individual study only enhances the reading experience.

I just started Old School by Tobias Wolff and in the opening pages he describes studying literature at a boarding school:

How did they command such deference – English teachers? …they tended to be polymaths.  Adept as they were at dissection, they would never leave a poem or a novel strewn about in pieces like some butchered frog reeking of formaldehyde. They’d stitch it back together with history, psychology, philosophy, religion, and even, on occasion, science.  Without pandering to your presumed desire to identify with the hero of a story, they made you feel what mattered to the writer had consequence for you, too.

Add to that this quote from Zadie Smith, author of On Beauty and Changing My Mind, who has just accepted a position as reviewer for Harpers:

“I think a good book review is a place to meet a book on its own terms,” said Smith, “not as an ideological vehicle or an academic plaything. Often people think of writing as primary and reading as the
lesser art; in my life it’s the other way around. When I write about books I’m trying to honor reading as a creative act: as far as I’m concerned the job is not simply to describe an end product but to delineate a process, an intimate experience with a book which the general reader understands just as well as the professional critic.”

Two different ways of looking at literature – one more academic, one more intimate – both legitimate pathways to take and sometimes, the road may even be the same.


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It is a beautiful fall day here in the hinterland with crisp air and falling leaves.  Eldest is visiting for his 21st birthday and got up just before noon after celebrating with some Satori friends at a dive bar on Trent.  Youngest is head deep in  Calculus, college aps, and other homework but took time for a hike in the county park with the camera and the dogs.  I finished The Singer’s Gun by Emily St. John Mandel (having earlier finished Last Night in Montreal) and wishing I could write half as well as she does. And, as always, the list of things to read grows ever longer…

The National Book Award Finalists have been posted here.  I have Krauss’ Great House on my hold list and I may have to add I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamshita.  Featuring 10 novellas each covering a single year, this novel covers both the personal and global experience centered around an international hotel in San Francisco – At 600 odd pages, this may have to be a travel book.

From Reading on a Rainy Day, I find Hiroshima in the Morning by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto.  Rizzuto leaves her family in the United States to explore her war heritage and interview the last remaining survivors of the Hiroshima bombing.  The book covers both her investigative work and the impact of the work on her personal life.  A quote from the product description: “Woven into the story of her own awakening are the stories of Hiroshima in the survivors’ own words. The parallel narratives explore the role of memory in our lives and show how memory is not history but a story we tell ourselves to explain who we are.”

Book Snob reviews The Girls from Winnetka which follows five girls from their teenage years in the 1950’s to the present.  Rachel writes “None have had extraordinary lives, but in their ordinariness, they encompass the changing times of the 20th and 21st centuries, the shift in women’s roles, and the challenges each of us face as we grow from childhood to adulthood, and work out what we want from our lives.”  It is books like these that make for great winter reading.

Juxtabook reviews Tales of Protection by Norwegian Erik Fosnes Hansen and it sounded so interesting and complex that I searched and found The Guardian review which led me to Wikipedia’s entry on Paul Kammerer, a biologist who developed “The Law of Series” about the connectedness of events.  Kammerer’s work was cited by Carl Jung in his essay on Synchronicity.  So right there I am hooked because I am fascinated by the times in your life when the sums are more than the parts and there is a feeling of reverberations.  Often during these periods, I encounter many coincidences.   Unfortunately this one has to go on the Christmas list as it isn’t in the library system nor is it out at EWU.  Sigh.

Finally, in the Guardian review mentioned above I came across a new word: Quiddities – the “whatness” or the inherent nature or essence of something.” Cool!

Enjoy your Sunday.

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