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Archive for April, 2011

March Recap

March was a mixed bag of reading with one book unfinished, two that were a struggle (one worth it and the other not), a handful of mysteries, and a small number of really satisfying reads. This month I also introduced a monthly mini-review feature. Some of this months reads appeared in the first “Bites” post and others will be in the second. I hope to also post a few more reviews from this month’s reading as soon as I can put my current books down.

Best Read: The Other Side of the Bridge – I am in love with Mary Lawson’s writing and really hope she comes out with another novel soon. I was tempted to pick Water Theatre as I really enjoyed the mystical plot but the ending was somewhat disappointing. I also think The History of History is a worthy read, well written and layered  but it was, as I mentioned in my review, a struggle for me to read . The Other Side of the Bridge wins out not only for its writing, but also for its celebration of simplicity.

Also Consider: The Pages by Murray Bail – this is a spare novel set in the outback of Australia. A philosophy professor is sent to analyze the writings of a recently deceased man (the brother of a sheep farmer and his sister). It is a spare but interesting look at philosophy and psychoanalysis.

  • Best Book Group Book – The Assault because I think you can have a great discussion about memory, the past and its effect on your future, responsibility, forgiveness, and many other topics. Plus it is a fairly short and easy read. In the waning days of the war, a policeman is shot in the street. The neighbors rush out and move the body – an act that has devastating consequences.
  • Best Curl Up On A Weekend Afternoon Book: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. Get yourself a cup of tea, find the kitty, and enjoy the dichotomy of light and dark Barbara Comyns dishes up.
  • Best Travel Book – Two choices for this month. The first is Echoes from the Dead – a long mystery set in an island off Sweden. Years after a child went missing; his grandfather receives one of the boy’s sandals in the mail. With a narrative that alternates between the history of the island’s most notorious murderer and the present day foraging to answers, Echoes keeps you engaged and is long enough to get you through a plane flight. For those who would prefer something other than a mystery while traveling Map of Love is a saga set in Egypt alternating between the past when Egypt was occupied by the British and the present. You find yourself lost in another world with this one, perfect for losing yourself.
  • Best Mystery – Boston Noir. I picked this one solely on the basis of Dennis Lehune’s introduction which had the best definition of Noir I have ever read and his short story in the collection. I have not read any Lehune but his story made me want to look into his work.
  • Did not finish: Peripheral Vision; this novel seemed to feature several plot lines some of which went together and some didn’t. After a short while in, I did not care for any of the characters or the story line so I returned it to the library. This book has received favorable reviews elsewhere.

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Three track meets in three days and we were only sprinkled on once – not bad for a Hinterland Spring. They haven’t had to shovel snow of the track once this year and we actually had some sun on Thursday.  We are still layered up – even with the sun the temperatures are chilly. I am still not in track mode which means I have been scrambling on meet days to make sure dinner is prepped and youngest has the food he needs. It also means that not much reading has been done. I did finish Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead – did not even start on Strange Room and now I have two week books from the library in my stack that have bumped it to the bottom of the pile and I need to reread Plainsong by Kent Haruf by Monday night for book group. That shouldn’t be too hard because reading Haruf’s prose is always a pleasure and Plainsong is my favorite of his books.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

I really liked Empire Falls by Richard Russo and I go back and forth on reading That Old Cape Magic – the story of a middle-aged man confronting his past and his present while attempting to scatter his dad’s ashes. Caribousmom’s review really makes me want to put it back on the list especially when she highlights quotes such as this to describe how Russo captures his characters, in this case Griff’s mother giving her retirement speech at the college she taught at for many years:

“Unlike my colleagues,” she said directly into the microphone, the only speaker of the evening to recognize that fundamental necessity, “I’ll be brief and honest. I wish I could think of something nice to say about you people and this university, I really do. But the truth we dare not utter is that ours is a distinctly second-rate institution, as are the vast majority of our students, as are we.” Then she returned to her seat and patted Griffin’s hand, as if to say, There, now; that wasn’t so bad, was it? – from That Old Cape Magic, page 20 –

Teresa from Shelf Love reviews Katharine Weber’s Triangle, a novel based on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 where 146 people died most of them young immigrant women. Teresa talks of both the public nature of such an incident and the private losses of the individuals involved. I really enjoyed reading The Report by Jessica Francis Kane (also about a public tragedy and private loss) and I love books about memory and history. When the last living survivor, Ester, dies, her granddaughter and her partner (Rebecca and George) look into Ester’s account at the same time as an avid historian of the fire. The author also adds notes from Rebecca’s work with DNA and George’s musical compositions. I read the first part of Chapter One which is Ester’s recollection of what happened and was hooked – I wanted to go on and see just how this recollection played through in the present day – even though my reading stack is large, I’ve placed a hold on this one.

Stefanie from So Many Books is lusting after the same book I am. I first heard of The Use and Abuse of Literature by Marjorie Garber from NPR and Stefanie also linked a review in the San Francisco Chronicle. This work is an exploration “through the archives of literature”, what the word “literature” entails throughout history, and a celebration of reading. Seth Lerer in his review sums it up perfectly:

Each time we read a book, we see it differently; each time we read a book, we see ourselves differently in it. Garber seems to have read everything, and this book offers, in addition to seductive argument, a complete anthology of quotations and engagements with poets, playwrights, novelists, biographers and literary theorists. Her book is a testament not simply to Great Books but also to a great conversation between ourselves and the past and among ourselves as present readers. Why read? In the end, the answer to the question is as complex and compelling as “why live?”

One fun thing about reading book blogs is how you can find yourself going from one to another or, on other cases, from a review of a book that doesn’t quiet peak your interest but it refers to an earlier review of a book that does.

The latter happened when I read John Self’s review of Anna Kravan’s Ice. I was intrigued by Anna’s story (physiological issues, heroin addiction, renaming herself after one of her own character’s, etc.) but the book itself didn’t seem like my thing. And then I clicked on a book John mentions in the review and found his review of  Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation. Priest is more widely known as the author of The Prestige which, in turn became a movie that my boys frequently talk about. The Affirmation is about a young man who becomes fixated on recording his life and in the process the lines between what is memory, what is reality, and what is imagination become blurred. I really like the idea of exploring how a person tries to impose order on memory, which for me is a process outside the bounds of order. I love the quote from the book John includes in his review, “I perceived my past life as an unordered, uncontrolled bedlam of events. Nothing made sense, nothing was consistent with anything else. It seemed important to me that I should try to impose some kind of order on my memories. It never occurred to me to question why I should do this. It was just extremely important.” Unfortunately, this looks like it may be somewhat difficult to find so it is going on the used book store list.

Eva of a Striped Armchair gives a brief mention to Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea. This novel is a 21st century hero’s journey only in the case, the hero is a girl. Nayeli notices all the men have left her small coastal village in Mexico for the north leaving it at the mercy of drug gangs. She recruits two girls to help her and they embark on a road trip to recruit seven Mexican Men to come back with her- ala The Magnificent Seven. A novel that taps into myths and legends, combined with a road trip and the three musketeers – all of this with, as Eva puts it,  “every page of this was something to savour, and when I closed the back cover it was with a bittersweet sigh.”

Eva, in the same post, also mentions Damascus Nights by Rafik Schami – a novel, like The Hakawati, about a middle-Eastern storyteller. This on is set in the 1950’s where a coachman (and storyteller) loses his voice. His friends spin yarns in order to save him. Like The Hakawati, this novel alternates between what is happening in reality and the stories that are being told.

Finally, Gavin from Page 247 reviews Mythago by Robert Holdstock, a fantasy about an ancient wood that is larger on the inside than it is on the outside (reminiscent of a certain Wardrobe). The wood is populated with “mythagos, monsters, animals and humans created by the unconscious memories of the humans that surround it.  These mythical beings are archetypes that vary depending the time period, thoughts and imaginings of the humans creating them.” What an intriguing idea. This one sounds perfect for Eldest who loves this type of thing.

I think I will end with a picture of how I have been spending my time – it is the start of the 800 meter race and youngest is distinguishable by his long socks. When he runs in a more crowded race like the 3200 or the 1600 – it really makes him easier to spot.

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The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night. Old Ives stood on the veranda steps beating his red bucket with a stick while he called to them, but today they ignored him and floated away white and shinning towards the tennis court. Swans were there, their long necks excavating under the dark, muddy water. All around there was a wheezy creaking noise as the water soaked into unaccustomed places, and in the distance a roar and above it the shouts of men trying to rescue animals from the low-lying fields. A passing pig, squealing, its short legs madly beating the water and tearing at its throat, which was red and bleeding and a large flat-bottomed boat followed with men inside. The boat whirled round and round in the fierce current; but eventually the pig was saved, and squealed even louder. The children, Hattie and Dennis, watched the rescue from a bedroom window, and suddenly the sun came out very bright and strong and everywhere became silver. (pgs. 1-2)

So begins Barbara Comyns’ 1954 novel Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead – set in a small country village in Warwicksire England. The Willoweeds live in the village manor home and are led by a deaf, unpleasant, tyrant of a Grandmother. She terrorizes the servants, her son Elbin (a lazy, no-good widower) and his three children: Emma, Hattie, and Denis.  This little jewel of a novel has a plot similar to the river that flows by the Willoweed’s manor – slow and meandering with hidden dangers lurking underneath. It all starts with the flood and as the village recovers, people start dying in gruesome, mysterious ways.

Grandmother Willoweed is most concerned about maintaining her hold over everyone in her vicinity as well as her comfort. She takes one woman dying and crushing her cat as a personal insult. Elbin is concerned with doing as little as possible. Emma the oldest, dreams the dreams of a young girl on the brink of adulthood all the time conscious that she lives in a house with impossible adults. As the novel goes on some of the characters are changed and some are dead while the reader is in the same place they started, a small village. Only now the reader has gone through a disquieting sense of unease.

I found this novel very reminiscent of Edward Gorey: a rural setting, a manor house, upper-class characters, and the same quirky juxtaposition of the unthinkable and the amusing. Even the size of the book and the cover illustration reminds me of reading a Gorey work. Both Goery and Comyns are adapt at portraying the eccentric in such a matter-of-fact way that what we may find odd instead, seems quite commonplace. Comyns is very good at generating this same type of atmosphere and she fleshes out a Gorey outline with word-images:

Strange objects of pitiful aspect floated past: the bloated image of a drowned sheep, the wool withering about in the water, a white bee-hive with the perplexed bees still around; a new-born pig all pink and dead; and the mournful bodies of the peacocks. It seemed so stark to see such sorrowful things under the blazing sun and blue sky – a mist of rain would have been more fitting. (pg 3-4)

Comyns is also masterful at her descriptions of people, using a few words to give a complete picture of even minor characters:

His mother was a little frightened bird of a woman, who held her twisted, claw like-hands clasped near her face as if she was praying. This made it rather difficult for her to play cards and they would fall around her like the petals from a dying flower. (pg. 29)

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is a short novel, worthy of a comfortable afternoon curled up and reading. Comyns combines the wonder of a child playing with toy boats of the river with grown-ups acting despicably, a destructive flood in a bucolic village, people who die and people who change. And through it all I enjoyed myself immensely.

I received this book from Gavin of Page 247

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