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Archive for February, 2011

Sunday Caught My Interest

Sitting in my mom’s kitchen listening to the conversation ranging from the state of Libraries today, politics, and old family stories and jokes – nothing better!

The other day my mother was telling about an article in The New York Times Magazine concerning memory. The article describes a man who writes an article on participants in the US Memory Championships. Joshua Foer eventually studies the techniques and participates in the Championships. He has written a book about his experiences and memory in general and to my delight Nonsuch Books has reviewed Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer. It is definitely going on my list. I found the article fascinating because my mom and I think/remember in this same way where as my dad thought it was an alien way of thinking. This book will be available on March 3, 2011.

The Boston Bibliophile is talking about the Booker Prize and reviews the 1979 winner Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald.  I have another Fitzgerald in my too be read stack – The Bookshop, but it seems like I might need to add this one to the list. Offshore is about a group of characters who are living in houseboats on the river Thames. I love what Marie has to say: “It’s a little gem about personalities and lifestyles intersecting and mingling like slow-moving driftwood at the water’s edge.”

For those of you who like reading about different cultures, Jackie of Farmlanebooks reviews The Three Sisters by Bi Feiyu. Set in China during the 1970’s and 1980’s, this novel is about the lives of three sisters (out of seven total daughters). Their father is a philandering, disgraced Communist Party Leader in a small village. The sisters leave and try to make their way in a culture that still doesn’t value women. This book was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Asian Prize and is about cultural restraints and saving face. Some reviewers are a little unsettled about the ending but praise the book in spite of this issue and Jackie says “as an introduction to Chinese Literature, this is an ideal choice.”

I don’t read much young adult fiction but Wendy’s (from Musings of a Bookish Kitty) of Tigerheart by Peter David has caught my eye – in part because of the reviews I have been reading of A.S. Baytt’s The Children’s Book. Peter Pan plays a role in Baytt’s book and David’s work seems to be a re-imagining of the original story.

Danielle of A Work in Progress has a brief mention of what sounds like a lovely book – The Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim. Von Arnim is an Australian-born British novelist who on her marriage became a German Countess. The Solitary Summer is written in semi-diary form of a woman, who three small children, who decides to spend the summer alone. While it is a sequel to a previous book, Elizabeth and Her German Garden, it seems as if it can stand on its own. As I loved Tove Jansson’s The Summer Island, this seems similar and I look forward to tracking it down. For those who have a Kindle, I think this one may be free.

Kimbofo of Reading Matters mentions a novella that sounds very interesting: The Visitor by Maeve Brennan, an Irish short story writer and journalist. Brennan moved to the United States in 1934 and wrote articles for The New Yorker. The Visitor was discovered in the archives of the University of Notre Dame and was published for the first time in 2000. The Visitor is about a young girl who moves in with her grandmother. Her mother has recently died after being separated from her father for some years. Unfortunately the grandmother doesn’t care for Anastasia, the 22 young woman and she is also mourning the death of her son and Anastasia’s father.  This novella seems to be an exploration of grief, anger, and the idea of home and coupled with the intriguing story of how this work was published means that this work has definitely caught my interest.

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Crow Lake

…on the way back we flew very low over northern Ontario…I was staggered by the vastness of it. The emptiness. We flew over miles and miles of nothing, of rocks and trees, and lakes, beautiful and desolate are remote as the moon. And then below us I suddenly say a thin gray-white like, weaving about in the middle of all that nothingness, finding its way around lakes and swamps and granite outcrops. And up ahead, as if it were a balloon and that fragile line a piece of string attached to it, a small clearing appeared at the side of a lake. There were fields marked out in the clearing, and a scattering of houses and several more gray-white lines knitting them all together. More or less at the center, identifiable by its squat little spire and by the neat square of graveyard surrounding it, was the church and beside that, in the middle of a battered patch of playground, the school.

It wasn’t Crow Lake, but it might as well have been. I thought, Home.

And then I thought, Weren’t we brave! I didn’t mean us in particular; I meant all those who dared to live remote from their fellows in such a vast and silent land. (pgs. 93-94)

Kate Morrison, one of the four Morrison children, is an Assistant Professor of Biology at a Canadian University. She has just received an invitation to her nephew’s eighteenth birthday party back home, in Crow Lake. She is also a seven year old girl, barely coping with the death of her parents. Mary Lawson’s debut novel, Crow Lake, alternates between the present-day Kate and the Kate of that first year after the death of her parents.

My mother suggested I read this book, with its strong depiction of place, its account of the aftermath of a tragedy and the effect of that tragedy on the four Morrison children. I found the beginning very difficult to read because my mother was orphaned – my grandparents died when my mother was four; her two sisters were ten and sixteen. So the family response, the discussions of what to do with the children hit home with me – far more so than with my mother who explained to me that she didn’t have much angst over the issue. Unlike my mother’s family, the Morrison children convince their family to let them stay together, at home, in Crow Lake: Luke at nineteen, Matt at seventeen, Kate at seven, and Bo at one and a-half.

Each child is hit with the brunt of what they are dealing with in different ways and it affects them differently as well. Mary Lawson explores those differences subtly, painting a picture of a family that has been taught to not show emotions or to even explain why they feel the way they do. The very small and isolate community surrounds the children with support bringing seemingly endless amounts of hams, roasts, and stews in what seems to be a loosely set-up rotation. However, the stress the children feel (particularly Luke and Matt who have a relationship that borders on serious rivalry) has a toll on each of them, particularly Kate.

Present-day Kate has a new relationship with a fellow professor, a relationship that has caught her somewhat off guard.

You must understand: I had never thought I would love anyone. It hadn’t been on the cards as far as I was concerned. To be honest, I had thought that such intensity of feeling was beyond me. When I “discovered” Daniel, if I can put it like that, I think I was somewhat dazed by the mere fact of existence. I did not analyze my feelings, or let myself agonize about his, maybe, because I was afraid that if I found I loved and needed him too much, he would be bound to disappear. People I love and need have a habit of disappearing from my life. (pg. 89)

Daniel has also been asking Kate about her upbringing, wanting to get to know all about her. This has unsettled her – how can she explain her story, her family, the guilt she feels? This tension from Kate coupled with quiet language describing this year of grief pulls the story forward, giving the reader a look into a struggling family. As Kate works toward some sort of reconciliation, the reader is given a portrait of a small community, of family violence entrenched through the generations, of the clash between what is possible and what is real.

Mary Lawson has composed an excellent first novel. I felt it the author over used foreshadowing – in culinary terms, the dish was a little salty. And while the ending made sense, I have a feeling it was a little abrupt – the meat wasn’t allowed to rest quite long enough. I did wonder if there was another book that Mary Lawson had in mind – I got the feeling that the rivalry between Luke and Matt was on her mind and I have since found out her second novel does explore a sibling rivalry. I look forward to reading itnot only because of the author’s excellent prose, but also her ability to look at relationships and translate those relationships to the reader in a way that both enlightens as well as entertains.

 

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Words for Wednesday

Today’s Wednesday Words is from Crow Lake by Mary Lawson and my review will follow Thursday or Friday. I usually don’t post such a long section but it was too delicious to cut. The narrator, a seven year old girl living in remote northern Ontario, has recently been orphaned. Here she describes how she feels, or rather, doesn’t feel walking to school along side the railroad tracks and being in school itself.

The path they cut was three or four times wider than the track themselves, and over the years it had filled itself with wildflowers and grasses – fireweed and milkweed, goldenrod and Queen Anne’s Lace, harebell, and goat’s beard – so that I walked along the rails each morning as if walking through a meadow. By September everything was in seed. The seed heads shook their contents over you as you passed and the burrs clung to your clothes. Some days thousands of milkweed pods would burst open together, triggered by the heat of the sun; thousands and thousands of small silent explosions repeating themselves in salvos down the miles of tracks. On those days I walked through clouds of silken down drifting down like smoke in the morning breeze.

I passed through all of this as if I were sleepwalking. I was conscious of it but I did not really see it. At school it was the same; Miss Carrington would lecture us on arithmetic or grammar or history or geography and I would sit, politely attentive, and take in not a single word. I would be watching the dust mores, perhaps, slanted through the classroom windows. Or I would be listening to the thunder of the sugar beets as they were loaded into hopper-cars, ready for their trip south. The railroad tracks ran past the bottom of the schoolyard, and the siding where the hopper-cars waited their turn to be loaded was directly opposite of the school…All through September trucks from the farms would jolt along the rutted path beside the tracks and dump their loads of beets into the hopper with a roar which brought Miss Carrington to a standstill. And then the conveyor belt would be switched on and the beets would start to drop, first one at a time and then in a steady rumble, into the huge hollow drum of the hopper-car. In other years, after the first week or so back at school I hadn’t noticed the noise much; we all grew up with that roar, and like the sound of the waves, it took its place as part of the background to our lives. That September though, there seemed something hypnotic about it. I listened, fascinated, and the dull, heavy rumble seemed to sink into my soul. (pgs. 123-124)

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The Polysyllabic Spree

…I suddenly had a little epiphany: all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. My music is me, too, of course – but as I only really like rock and roll and its mutations, huge chunks of me – my rarely examined operatic streak for example – are unrepresented in my CD collection. And I don’t have the wall space or the money for all the art I would want and my house is a shabby mess, ruined by children…but with each purchase year and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not. (pg. 125)

In September 2003, Nick Hornby began writing a monthly column for Believer Magazine, “Stuff I have been Reading”. The column chronicles Hornby’s reading life – books read as well as books purchased. The Polysyllabic Spree is a collection of the first fifteen months of Hornby’s musings on reading, life, and the fine sport of English Football interspersed with excerpts of some of what Hornby is reading such as a long passage from David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Hornby is the author of a highly regarded memoir, Fever Pitch, about his fanatical obsession with the Arsenal Football Club. He also has a number of novels (including High Fidelity) and other non-fiction writing to his name. He followed up Polysyllabic Spree with two other collections and some of his columns are online at the Believer’s website but half the fun of reading the columns comes from the things that carry over month to month.

This book was just plain fun to read. Hornby is varied in his reading taste: classics, biography, letters, modern fiction, and non-fiction as well. I have not heard of much of what he was reading which made me wonder what exactly I was doing in 2004 (it was fairly non-reading year for me) and I have looked a few of the books up to add to my list. It was also really nice to see someone reading biographies and letters – an area woefully neglected these days.

Most of the fun comes from reading a really good writer talk about reading. He gets it – the sheer pleasure of reading a passage of good writing, the satisfaction of reading a book that really speaks to you, “ …in other words, it wasn’t just up my street; it was actually knocking at my front door and peering through the letterbox to see if I was in.” (pg. 24) Hornby also talks of how one book leads to another, as well as the act of writing and the creative life. He even has moving passages about raising autistic children.

He has several passages about the contrast between the modern writing trend of leanness and classics with their depth and breath which Hornby describes as “books teeming with exuberance and energy and life and comedy.”(pg. 75) He really made me reflect on my own reading because tend to read and enjoy those modern lean and mean novels and yet three of my all time favorite books I have ever read are Middlemarch, Vanity Fair, and War and Peace. Perhaps I need to make more room in my life for Henry James.

Hornby also writes about the experience of falling out of love with a book, that jolting moment when it just isn’t working anymore, that moment when “suddenly I was no longer under the skin of the book the way I had been; I was on the outside looking in.” (pg. 96) He even writes about the panic you feel when, not withstanding the enormous number of unread books at home, when you think, for what ever reason, that you may not be able to purchase a new book for a long time. I have had the same feeling of panic when the stack coming in from the library slows down – what would I do?

If you are a reader who enjoys reading about books and the act of reading, then look for the Polysyllabic Spree. Because it is a collection of magazine columns – it is a quick read perfect for those “just before bed” reading times or even for keeping in the car for when you have a small amount of waiting time and want something short to read.

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We have had beautiful sunny, but cold days here. So we took advantage and went for the first hike of the year up at the county park. Youngest met up with his friends earlier and was hiking ahead of us – they went much higher and farther then Himself, myself, and our two four footed friends. I also went to see The Fighter with a friend and think Christian Bale’s performance is definitely Oscar worthy. Later this week I am off to Salem for the annual St. Cholesterol Day celebration with much reading coming with me: I have The Weird Sisters and The Still Point coming in from the Library and timing is such I will need to read them while I am gone . I have Crow Lake by Mary Lawson to read before I leave so I can read The Other Side of the Bridge at my mom’s. I have been invited to one of my mom’s book groups which means I have to read The Girl who Fell From the Sky (which was on my to read list). Finally, I desperately want to start and finish The Water Theatre by Lindsay Clarke so I can leave it with my mom to read – all this with prepping, cooking, and cleaning massive numbers of meals for St. C’s itself plus all the surrounding dinners, breakfasts, etc. for house guests. Last year it was 66 people for 7 different meals and this year we may surpass that.  But on to what has caught my interest this week. I have assiduously avoided the hold button on my library’s internet catalog so I don’t end up with a backlog of books coming in while I am gone but it was really hard this week.

I have see mention of this book throughout the week so was please to see S. Krisna’s review of The Other Life by Ellen Meister. Quinn Braverman has a nice life with a dark undertone. She also has the ability to go through a portal to a life where her what if questions are answered. What if I stayed with that one boyfriend instead of breaking up with him? What if my mother hadn’t committed suicide? Everyone has roads they haven’t taken and it is fun to look back and see what might have been.

Jen of Devourer of Books also reviews a book I have seen mentioned a few other places: I is an Other: The Secret Life Of Metaphor And How It Shapes The Way We See The World by James Geary. This book looks at how deeply our experience is molded by metaphor. I looked up the author and he has a blog called All Aphorisms, All The Time and his posting on Watson, the IBM computer playing on Jeopardy is both interesting and well-written, “What does this have to do with metaphor? Well, the kinds of things Watson and his human opponents will be parsing tomorrow are the same kinds of things that go into metaphors: loose associations, punning relationships, sidelong and sidereal correlations.” If his book is as interesting as his blog (beware – once you go there it is hard to stop reading) then the book should be very good. The book was even reviewed at the IMBD (Internet Movie Database). As IMBD states, “I Is An Other is more concerned with the power of associative thought than the power of flowery language.” I am a big fan of synchronicity and how seemingly unrelated things come into conjunction with each other so this is going on the To Be Read list.

Simon Lelic is an author I have seen mentioned before for his first novel Rupture which concerns a newly hired history teacher in a London school who ends up killing two students, a colleague,  and himself. His second book is also gathering some attention and is reviewed by one of my favorite bloggers, Tom of  Common Reader. The Facility looks at what happens when a government starts enforcing very stringent anti-terrorism laws; basically a secret government facility, an innocent man in danger, and two investigators trying to find the truth. Tom does mention the novel seems fairly formulaic but it seems like it might be a good travel read.

Rachel of a home between the pages reviews a book I have already read and would recommend it to anyone wanting a light read with literary allusions and Gothic undertones: Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. In this novel, a bookseller’s daughter is invited to write a biography of a famed, reclusive author by the author herself. The narrator moves from her father’s dusty antiquarian bookshop to a large, remote house on the fog shroud moors to investigate the author’s mysterious past. There are tons of literary references and a bit of suspense which make for a fairly good weekend read.

The Farmlanebooks Blog reviews The History of History: A Novel of Berlin, a debut novel by Ida Hattemer-Higgins. It seems hard to tell exactly what this book is about – I know that the main character, Margaret, is an American working as a walking tour guide in modern Berlin. The book seems both surreal at times as well as full of “with quirky details that make the city come to life”. The author spend time in Japan and the reviewer says that you can see this influence in the work. The publisher, Knopf, describes the book as, “Ida Hattemer-Higgins has written a novel about amnesia—individual, cultural, historical—about memory and oblivion, fantasy and reason, myth and redemption in our time. An unforgettable story from a bold and prodigiously gifted young talent.” I am glad to see my library has a copy and I will try to read this soon.

Finally The NY Times reviews The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-­French – The title alone makes me want to read it and then the Times gives a brief synopsis of the plot.  In 1953 Marylou Ahearn is given a radioactive cocktail as part of a government study, a cocktail that has unforeseen results and so for 50 years Mary Lou has been plotting her revenge on the doctor that administered the cocktail. Unfortunately, the “good” doctor has Alzheimer’s. How can you have revenge if the revengee has no knowledge or memory of the deed that has precipitated all this commotion? MaryLou tries to find a way. This novel seems populated by “odd ball” characters and it seems like the author does justice to each and every one. Fortunately for me, my library has this one as well.

Happy reading everyone!

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The Poison Tree

Neither of us has been here for over a decade, but I can still drive this street, anticipate those lights, make these gear changes, on autopilot. I could do it with my eyes shut. For a reckless second, I’m tempted to try, close my eyes shut and lock the wheel on a right curve. But I make the double turn into Queenswood Lane wide-eyed and unblinking. The noise of the city falls away as we enter the secret sliver of wildwood, where ancient trees muffle the sirens and screeches of the street and the half-hidden houses occupy a dark green private universe, cushioned by money as much as by trunk and bough and leaf. I drive carefully between the expensive cars, their side-view mirrors tucked into their bodies in case someone unfamiliar with the road drives too quickly and knocks into one. But I am more familiar with this lane than any other road, including the one I grew up on and the one I live on now. It’s the setting for most of my memories and all of my nightmares. (pg. 6)

The Poison Tree, a debut novel by freelance journalist Erin Kelly starts with an unknown woman receiving a phone call in the middle of the night. The phone call was obviously upsetting, sending the woman frantically out into her car still wearing her pajamas and slippers. As she careens down the road, we learn little about her reasons for doing what she is doing. The author gives a great sense of foreboding and urgency ending with an ambiguous passage:

It suddenly feels very hot inside the car. My hands are sweating inside my gloves, my eyes are dry, and my tongue is stick to the roof of my mouth. I have given up so much and done so many terrible things already for the sake of my family that I can only keep going. I do not know what is going to happen to us. I am frightened, but I feel strong. I have the strength of a woman who has everything to lose.  (pg. 3)

This becomes the central theme of the novel – Is there a difference between responsibility and love? And what will you do to protect the ones you love? How far are you willing to go? Not just the love between a parent and a child, but also the love between a man and a woman, the love between siblings. Many of the characters in this novel (both minor and major) make choices based on their feelings of responsibility and love for other people. Not everyone will agree with these choices but Kelly does a good job of not moralizing what her characters are doing.

We learn that the woman is Karen, a translator who ten years ago befriended a bohemian drama student named Biba. Biba has a brother, Rex who, in the present, has just been released from prison for an unnamed violent crime. Karen spends the summer after she graduates from college in Rex and Biba’s house bordering on one of London’s primeval forests. Karen feels alive in Biba’s presence, “…I felt as though I were being read and interpreted for the first time, unfolded and examined like a map left in a drawer for so long that its creases and pleats come permanently to describe their own typography. It was at once, unsettling and reassuring.” (pg. 29). The novel explains how the relationship between these three individuals developed and hanging over the narrative at all times is this “crime” – an ever present “Poison Tree”.

Kelly alternates between the past and the present with Karen describing both that one summer, how she and Rex became lovers, Biba’s unfettered personality and learning more about Rex and Biba’s complicated past and the present integrating Rex back into her life on the coast where she lives quietly with her daughter Alice. We know a crime as been committed but it takes a long time to understand exactly what really happened. Just when I thought I might have a glimmer, Kelly would incorporate another small tidbit into the narrative and I would be back at ground zero. And for those of you who read the last page or two of a book, doing so will not help you here. As a reader, I got the sense that I was walking through that primeval forest, cautiously stepping through the trees over uneven ground, not quite sure where I was going.

At the end of the novel, Kelly quotes William Blake’s “A Poison Tree”. The poem is very fitting to the book and after finishing, you truly can see why the poem fits and where the title of the book comes from. There are brief echoes to the poem scattered throughout the novel, “I suddenly felt hot and suffocated for reasons that had nothing to do with the closed windows. The first real shaft of sun brought a new heat that filtered through the ivy that grew against the window. The leaves pressed against the pane, poison-bottle green, the size and shape of human hearts.” (pg. 182). When I was finished I still was still left wondering – what would I do to protect my family? Is there a little poison in all of us?

I must admit that at first I struggled with this book as I felt the novelist was a little heavy-handed with her metaphors and similes. However, as I read along, the writing got tighter, almost like we were spiraling inward to the center closer and closer to understanding. This feeling I had certainly attests to Kelly’s skill. I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next – I think she can only get better especially with such a fine beginning.

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Words for Wednesday

From Hiroshima In The Morning by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto – A memoir outlining her time in Japan studying and interviewing the hibakusha, the survivors of the atom bombing of Hiroshima. Rizzuto went to Japan to do research for a novel and ended up writing a memoir that not only explores memory, but also guilt, responsibility, and self-realization. In looking at the results of the bombing, Rizzuto also looks at how we define ourselves.

I can tell the story but it won’t be true.

It won’t be the facts as they happened exactly, each day, each footstep, each breath. Time elides, events shift; sometimes we shift them on purpose and forget that we did. Memory is just how we choose to remember.

We choose. (pg. 11)

I will come to believe, months from now, that life is a narrative. That who we are, what roles we choose – that there are deliberate characters we create to explain what we did – find a way to face tomorrow. That memory is not history. That we rewrite ourselves with every heartbeat. At this moment, though, my life is still a given. It does not – despite the contradiction of reality – change. My life is what surrounds me; I subsist on it so entirely that I can’t begin to see it. (pg. 12)

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