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Archive for March, 2012

Too many books, too little time, and here are some more to add to the lists:

The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen: This is a debut novel by British author McCleen and the title is a reference to the Book of Ezekiel, fitting for a book centered on people who believe the end of the world is imminent, and fitting for an author who was raised in a fundamentalist church. Ten year old Judith McPherson lives with her steelworker father in a town dominated by the mills. Her mother has died and the family belongs to a strict and serious religious sect. Her time is spent at school (where she is bullied), in bible study and spreading the word of God, and in her room. In this somber, grim life, Judith has built an alternate universe in her room and begins to believe that what happens in “the land of decoration”, will also happen in reality.  This is a story of how a child tries to make sense of the faith given to her by adults. This novel sounds like a good book group choice.

Newspaper and Blog Reviews:

From The Guardian: “Short, thoughtful chapters dramatise tough emotional and philosophical issues through the lonely intelligence of the child who notices everything…”

From Buried In Print: “The Land of Decoration is an absorbing and emotive read; Grace McCleen’s debut is likely to provoke a great deal of discussion.”

From Fleur Fisher: “The ending was perfect. It was nicely dramatic, and it had just the right amount of ambiguity. Not all of my questions were answered, but sometimes it is right that there are no answers, that you have to make up your own mind.

And, though it is not without problems, it is lovely to be able to say that a debut novel is ambitious, intriguing and original.”

Forgotten Country by CatherineChung: Janie’s parents are naturalized American citizens from Korea. Her father has terminal cancer and they are returning to Korea for treatment. In the midst of this, Janie’s sister Hannah disappears following a legacy of having a missing sister in each generation. This is more than a mystery, it is also an exploration of familial relationships, Korean folklore, immigration and assimilation, and family secrets.

From Linus’s Blanket: ” …Catherine Chung has written a thoughtful and touching novel that draws its strength from examining a host of complicated, yet beautifully rendered family issues. There aren’t any neat resolutions to be found, and some mysteries remain just that, but don’t let that deter you from this achingly bittersweet tale of two sisters.  Highly recommended.

From The San Francisco Chronicle: “Chung reveals Janie’s secrets with such a delicate grace that I was startled and then leveled by them…Chung falters only in her revelation of Hannah’s motivations…But Chung’s broader theme, that the sisters represent a New World/Old World division, and her goal to see them unified, having learned each from the other, are both strongly conveyed and realized. Her voice is fresh, her material rich, and “Forgotten Country” is an impressive, memorable debut.”

From Devourer of Books: “With Forgotten Country Chung has created a beautifully sad portrait of a family. That they are Korean and have immigrated to the United States and return to their native land is in some ways incidental to the universal story of family love, jealousy, and betrayal. At the same time, it is their cultural heritage and immigration status and the authentic ways that these aspects of who they are inform their lives that brings Chung’s characters so vividly to life.”
Why be Happy When You Could be Normal by Jeanette Winterson: Winterson is a British author who was adopted at birth and raised by her family in a Pentecostal church. She is highly acclaimed and her works are prize winning, particularly her first novel Oranges are not the Only Fruit which is based, in part, on her childhood. Her latest work is a memoir about her search for happiness in spite of the restrictions of her religion, her coming to terms with her sexuality, to her search for her biological mother.
From Shelf Awareness: “is as compulsively readable as Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett’s great memoir of friendship…Winterson’s memoir is also a tribute to the salvation of narrative, a salvation she found as a teen on the shelves of the Accrington Public Library, in the paperbacks she bought with her market wages and hid under her mattress (until Mrs. Winterson burned them) and in the books she went on to write herself.”
From Asylum: “The three elements in the book – love, literature, life in the world – are ultimately inseparable…Jeanette not only explains but shows how her childhood informed her fiction, including the lack of straightforward narrative which she attributes in part to her own life’s lack of narrative.”
From The Guardian: ” this vivid, unpredictable and sometimes mind-rattling memoir. You start it expecting one thing – a wry retake of her working-class gothic upbringing – and come out having been subjected to one of the more harrowing and candid investigations of mid-life breakdown I’ve ever read.”
Other Releases of Note:
When I was a Child, I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson, author of Housekeeping and Gilead. This book features ten essays covering Robinson’s childhood in Idaho to political and social issues.
Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates: M.R. [Meredith Ruth] Neukirchen is the first female president of an ivy league institution and she was also abandoned at birth in a mudflat by her psychotic mother.  During a tumultuous period in her life, the past rises up to conflict with the present.
Another Time, Another Life by Leif GW Persson, a Swedish criminologist and author: In 1975 the German embassy was bombed in Sweden and in 1989 a murder occurs. In the year 2000, the head of the Swedish Security Police must reexamine these crimes and find out how they are linked together and  the repercussions for the present day.
Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son by Anne Lamott: Anne Lamott is a grandmother and Sam, the focus of her Operating Instructions is a dad.

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It is actually sunny here at nearly 60 degrees. We have crocus coming up in the back yard and himself went on a long bike ride today. I have been consumed with crafts, etc. this past week making a wreath for the front door and containers for the laundry room makeover. I did finish State of Wonder by Ann Patchett and I am halfway through The Drowning Tree by Carol Goodman. I can see echos of themes that also appeared in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in each work (although much more so with the Patchett) which makes reading always more interesting. I am letting State of Wonder percolate in my mind a bit before reviewing it.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

Danielle of A Work in Progress has a nice stack of new books to read – two of which have caught my interest. The first is The Spy Game by Georgina Harding. In January 1961, Alice’s mother gives her a kiss and disappears into the fog. Alice and her brother Peter are told she has died in an auto accident. There is no funeral and eventually the two children become convinced that their mother was a Russian spy and she is still alive. The book description ends, “The Spy Game is a beautifully wrought novel about loss, history, memory, and imagination, and the way in which we shape these to construct our own identities. It is a painful and tender reminder of the importance of understanding the past and, in turn, the importance of letting go.” All themes I love to read.

The second book in her stack that I would like to read is The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino. This novel was the winner of Japan’s prestigious Naoki Prize in 2005. While part of a detective series, Suspect X is the first work of Higashino’s to be translated into English. The detective in this novel is Dr. Yukawa, a physicist who is called in by the police to help with certain cases. He feels that an old school mate, Ishigami has something to do with the murder of the ex-husband of Ishigami’s neighbor. The two smart men dance around each other each with different ends. This reminds me of old-school detective stories and I will look out for this one.

If you are in the mood for a sprawling family tale of romance, Becca from Bookstack has a book for you. It is The Orchid House by Lucinda Riley. Set in both modern times and WWII, the estate of Wharton Park ties the two times together. In modern times, Julia returns to the estate after a tragedy and when she and Kit Crawford, heir to the estate, discover an old diary, Julie seeks out the story of a WWII love affair that takes place in Thailand. This sounds like a perfect travel read.

It is spring which means track season so I am on the lookout for a series of books that can be easily read in spurts as there can be an awful lot of downtime in meets. Devourer of Books has just the series for me Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford Mysteries starting with A Duty to the Dead. The premise of the story has me hooked from the get go. Bess, a WWII nurse delivers a dying message to a soldier’s brother, “Tell my brother Jonathan I lied. I did it for mother’s sake, but it must be set right.” I really want to know what he lied about and the ramifications of delivering the message. While Bess may be somewhat comparable to  Maisie Dobb’s, there seems to be enough differences to make things interesting.

Suzanne of Bibliosue has a review that highlights why book groups are so wonderful. Her book group picked out a book that she would not have necessarily picked up and she loved it. Not only does she love it, it sounds like the type of book that will engender the best discussions. Wingshooters by Nina Revoyr is set in a small Wisconsin town in the mid-seventies,  Michelle LeBeau is a young girl living with her grandparents. Because she is half-Japanese she is considered an outsider by the town. Her grandfather, a pillar of the community, is conflicted because he loves his granddaughter but is also disturbed by her ancestry. Into this mix, a professional black couple move into the town and the community becomes very unsettled.  I am putting this one on my list for my next pick for my book group.

Happy reading!

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From State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Just the thought of Dr. Swenson gave Marina the sensation of a cold hand groping her heart. It is fifteen years ago and she is in the lecture hall at Johns Hopkins in a seat safely on the aisle of a middle row, and there is Dr. Swenson pacing in front of the podium, talking about the cervix, the cervix, with a level of intensity that elevates to such ferocity that none of them dare to look at their watches. No one in the crowd of a hundred will suggest that class is long over, class should be dismissed, there are other classes they are now in the process of missing. Even though Marina is a second-year resident she is attending a lecture for third-year medical students because Dr. Swenson has made it clear to residents and medical students alike that when she is speaking they should be in attendance. But Marina would not dream of missing a lecture or leaving a lecture over a matter as inconsequential as time. She is riveted in place while the slide show of atypical cells on the high wall before her flicks past so quickly they nearly make a moving picture. Dr. Swenson knows everything Marina needs to know, answers to the questions Marina has not yet formulated in her mind. A tiny woman made tinier by distance fixes one hundred people to their seats with a voice that never troubles itself to be raised, and because they are all afraid of her and because they are afraid of missing anything she might say, they stay as long as she chooses to keep them. Marina believes the entire room exists as she exists, at the intersection of terror and exaltation, a place that keeps the mind exceedingly alert. Her hand sweeps over page after page as she writes down every syllable Dr. Swenson speaks. It is the class in which Marina learns to take notes like a court reporter, a skill that will serve her for the rest of her life.

It strikes Marina as off that all these years later she still remembers Dr. Swenson in the lecture hall. In her mind’s eye she never sees her in surgery or on the floor making rounds, but at a safe, physical distance. (pgs. 10-11)

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What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so that it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me? I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sing the chorus of “Yellow Submarine,” which is a song by the Beatles who I love, because entomology is one of my raisons d’etre, which is a French expression I know. Another good thing is that I could train my anus to talk when I farted. If I wanted to be extremely hilarious, I’d train it to say, “Wasn’t me!” every time I made an incredibly bad fart. And if I ever made an incredibly bad fart in the Hall of Mirrors, which is in Versailles, which is outside Paris, which is in France, obviously, my anus would say, “Ce n’etais pas moi!”

What about little microphones? What if everyone swallowed them, and they played the sounds of our hearts through little speakers, which could be in the pouches of our overalls? When you skateboarded down the street at night you could hear everyone’s heartbeat, and they could hear yours, sort of like sonar. One weird thing is, I wonder if everyone’s hearts would start to beat at the same time, like how women who live together have their menstrual periods at the same time, which I know about, but don’t really want to know about. That would be so weird, except that the place in the hospital where babies are born would sound like a crystal chandelier in a houseboat, because the babies wouldn’t have had to match up their heartbeats yet. And at the finish line at the end of the New York City Marathon it would sound like war.

And also, there are so many times when you need to make a quick escape, but humans don’t have their own wings, or not yet, anyway, so what about a birdseed shirt? (pgs. 1-2)

Thus the reader is introduced to nine-year old Oskar Schell, the protagonist of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Intelligent, precocious, socially awkward, and desolate over the loss of his father, Oskar forces the reader to take a hard look at how a loss that effects the many and also has a tremendous impact on the few or the individual.  How do you mourn, how to you rebuild your life when your individual loss is part of many loses. A theme that is echoed through the author’s use of the characters who survived the fire bombing of Dresden.

This is the third time I read this novel. The first was several years ago for a book group, then I re-read it on my own a year or so, and finally read it again for a second book group. I also have seen the film.

The novel tells the story of Oskar, who two years after 9/11 is still missing and mourning the loss of his father in the fall of the towers. Oskar and his father were very close and his dad used to come up with excursions for Oskar, puzzles to solve that would take Oskar out and about and interact with people. One day,  Oskar finds a key in his father’s things and believes that it is one last excursion to take in order to find the lock the key belongs with. The only clue he has is the name “Black” so he sets out to find the right person with that last name. Although the novel is mostly in Oskar’s voice, we also hear from others (Oskar’s grandmother and a mystery voice). And we find out more about a family mystery – an explanation of sorts for why certain things in the family are the way they are.

I am fascinated by the emphasis the author places on the importance to an individual of telling their story or the impact of having their story cut off, or the struggle an individual goes through to find a way to bring their words to life. This novel is filled with words above and beyond the words on the page. They are written on walls, and even tattooed onto skin. They are invisible, unspoken, shouted, and said so quietly they can barely be heard. They are in the form of diaries, memoirs, journals, and thoughts. The words are terse, verbose, the words are key, even beyond Oskar’s search for the keyhole that fits the key he has found. If you don’t or cannot tell your story, do you cease to exist? And if someone else tells your story, are you still alive?

“You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.” (pg. 180)

Loss abounds in this book from Oskar’s loss, the loss of a father echos throughout the novel, loss of equilibrium,  the loss of a life you will not lead, the loss of a wife, even the loss of Orpheus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Oskar struggles with trust – leading back to Ovid’s question, “How do you trust?” Is the woman you love still behind you? How do you trust a world where buildings fall, bombs fall, people do not return, where life can change in the blink of an eye. The author doesn’t tell you what to think, he trusts you to come to your own conclusions.

Foer plays with structure and voice which some readers may find slightly off-putting. It can be difficult to tell whose voice is speaking at certain moments and Oskar may come across to some as slightly over the top. Other members of my book group spoke of having to surrender to the words, just go with the author, to trust that the words would provide meaning. I didn’t have this problem as I found the writing to be so good and the voices of the story so compelling I was able to enter into the world Foer was creating without difficulty. Oskar speaks of having “heavy boots” which is such a poignant image – so true to anyone who has suffered a loss but especially a child.

And while this is a story of loss, there are light-hearted moments – some sparks of humor and while we worry about Oskar and for him on his journey, we can see that there may be some hope as Oskar finds his way. And the book as much in it that can lead to great discussions. It was not a hardship to read this book for the third time and I must say that I got even more out of it this last time.

A short note about the film: This is one film adaptation that I feel is worth seeing. I felt the producers focused on the essence of the book that would make a good film, and while much is cut, the essence of the book is still there.

 

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I arrived back home on Monday and went immediately to my book group meeting. I guess my family knows where it rates. We had a fantastic discussion of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Our next book is The Submission by Amy Waldman which one member declared to be her most favorite book we have read. In a few months we are going to The Mirage by Matt Ruff. We did not intend to read three 9/11 related books in a row – it just worked out that way. They are all so different and it will be interesting to see how each author deals with an event that so changed perceptions. Eldest and I also embarked on a one day home improvement project which has stretched into day four (hopefully we will be done tomorrow) so not much reading had been done. But there is always next week.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

Two books have caught my interest from the Book Review Pages. The first is Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to Nazi Rise to Power by Andrew Nagorski reviewed in The Washington Post. I grew up in a Mitford household so I have long known about Unity Mitford and her fascination with Hitler. I have also read In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson which discusses the Dodds Family in Hitler’s Berlin. Martha Dodds is in Hitlerland (Unity is not – being English) but the author focuses on other Americans  “such as the journalists Sigrid Schultz and Hubert Knickerbocker, the embassy official George Messersmith…” some of whom appeared in In the garden of Beasts. This book seems like the perfect expansion of Larson’s work and I am hoping the library will have a copy soon.

The second book I found in The Guardian, Girl Reading by Katie Ward. This debut novel sounds fascinating. Many book bloggers feature pictures or paintings of women reading. Ward has taken seven of these portraits and written a story for each one. These “scenes” are thematically connected but separate in character and story and each takes place in a different century. Joanna Brisco writes in The Guardian:

Championed by Hilary Mantel as a work of “rare individuality and distinction”, this debut should appeal to a wide but discerning readership. Not for Katie Ward the coming-of-age first novel starring a barely disguised over-sensitive heroine airing her resentments: Girl Reading reads as though its author is five books down. She has plunged straight into a series of difficult challenges, her handling of time and place accomplished with authority, skill and knowledge.

Danielle of A Work in Progress delights in finding books that have been “lost in the stacks”. This week she has found a novella by Elizabeth Spenser, winner of several O’Henry Awards and once nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The novella, The Light in the Piazza was originally published in 1960 and now can be found in The Light in the Piazza and Other Italian Tales. The story was adapted into a movie in 1962 and a Broadway musical in 2005. Set in Florence, the novella follows an American mother and her daughter while they explore Italy. The daughter becomes infatuated with an Italian man but this is more that a simple love story. It has family secrets, moral quandaries, deception, and conflict between a mother and a daughter.

Elizabeth Taylor, British author has long been on my radar and I picked up a copy of At Mrs. Lippincote’s at a used book store recently. Now I have to find another one of her books because Rachel of Book Snob makes A View of The Harbour sound wonderful (and she scores additional points by comparing it to Villette by Jane Eyre (one of my favorite classic novels). Set in a decaying seaside village after WWII, the novel focuses on the lives of the villagers, their lonliness, their betrayals, and most of all, their watching each other as newcomer Bertram, a retired navel officer, moves among them with an agenda of his own. Maybe I can get it through inter-library loan?

Kim of Reading Matters hosts a weekly post where the selected guest author answers threee questions: a favorite book; a book that changed their life; and a book that deserves a wider audience. This past week author Georgina Harding answers the questions and now I want to read The Ice Palace by Norwigian poet and novelist Tarjei Vesaas. Recently my mother and I had a conversation about people you meet and there is an instant connection. Siss and Unn have such a connection spending only an evening in each other’s company. The next day Unn disappears and this has a devistating effect on Siss. This is what Harding says about the novel, “t’s about a friendship between two schoolgirls and what happens when one of them disappears. The past of the friendship, the continuing enigma of the lost girl, and the present search for her, are interwoven with an extraordinary tension within a frame which is that of the winter itself. The resolution can of course come only with the spring. And it’s so moving that it is hard to separate joy from pain.”

Finally, Danielle of A Work in Progress has been exploring diaries and while her exploration has focused on non-fiction, she has come up with a list of 13 novels written in a diary format. It is definitely a list worth considering.

Happy Reading.

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After the Apocalypse

In the beginning, there were only three of them, and I had met them quite by accident. The man sitting in the prow of the skiff was a short, brown-haired Englishman. He was smiling in a self-depreciating way. He was hunched forward, and looked a little gray. I thought he was scared but trying not to make a big deal out of it. I gathered he had been sick, although he didn’t say so directly. He looked a little like a refugee, I thought. It was some sort of thing about his heart, maybe? Not a heart attack, but perhaps angina. I was worried for him, and so was the red-haired woman he was with. (Going to France, pg. 121)

Maureen F.McHugh is a award winning science fiction and fantasy writer and After the Apocalypse is a collection of her short stories. I was quite pleased to see I had already read two of these stories before –  Special Economics and Useless Things – as they have appeared in himself’s annual “best of” collection he receives each year. What I like about these stories is their ordinariness. One story has vampires but they are not the focus of the action. Instead The Naturalist is about one man adjusting to his environment and observing what is happening around him. You could pick the man up out of his apocalyptic world and place him in the Amazon basin trying to survive the natural  world around him and determining what he needs to know to survive.

Many of the other stories are just a short step away in reality – economic collapse, avian flu, a dirty bomb – all things within easy reach in a reader’s imagination. The scariest story for me is Going to France quoted above. In this very short tale, strange things begin to happen, for no stated reason. The story abruptly ends with the reader knowing that life will never be the same and you are left not knowing how or why – you are left with a vague sense of unease.

These tales are about ordinary people in, what some would say, ordinary circumstances, trying to survive as best they can – just as people do everyday. But McHugh amps up the ordinary into something larger than life. For me, she was able to keep me reading, involve me in the character’s lives, made me care, all with an underlying sense of unease. And I was still able to sleep at night.

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From Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

I have so much to tell you, the problem isn’t that I’m running out of time, I’m running out of room, this book is filling up, there couldn’t be enough pages, I looked around the apartment this morning for one last time and there was writing everywhere, filling the walls and mirrors, I’d rolled up the rugs so I could write on the floors, I’d written on the windows and around bottles of wine we were given but never drank, I wear only short sleeves, even when it’s cold, because my arms are books, too. But there’s too much to express. I’m sorry. That’s what I’ve been trying to say to you, I’m sorry for everything. For having said goodbye to Anna when maybe I could have saved her and our idea, or at least died with them. I’m sorry for my inability to hold on to the important things. (pg. 132)

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Hello from beautiful Oregon. It is my last day here as I head off to home tomorrow. I stayed extra days to pick up youngest for his spring break and bring him down to his grandparents. He loves spending time here and I love to watch him interact with two of the most important people in my life. I had a lovely day on Thursday visiting my two favorite used books stores and scored big. I got several Barbara Pym novels as I finished Excellent Women and want to read some of her other work. I think when I get all done with them I should have a Pym give-away. I also picked up At Mrs. Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor (my mom is reading it now) and was very please as I am finding her work difficult to come across. I also picked up some other odds and ends that have been on my list for a very long time. And I picked up a copy of Sherlock Holmes for a friend of Eldest. He likes to read but finds it very slow going so library books don’t work for him. He has just finished The Portrait of Dorian Gray and expressed a desired to read Holmes’ stories.

Here is what caught my interest this week:

My mother, like many good readers, keeps a list of books that she wants and I frequently refer that list to my dad when suggesting presents for him to purchase. This Christmas one of those books was called The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. “Too late” said my dad – turns out he had already ordered a copy for himself. I just picked this book up yesterday to suggest it to youngest if he had any time to read over break (he has a ton of homework to do). And now I have come across a wonderful review of the book by Stefanie of So Many Books that makes me want to tuck the book away in my luggage. The book is is about a scholar who in the year 1417 rediscovers the “last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius—a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.” The work by Lucretius had a tremendous effect on art, science, and philosophy all outlined in what is called a highly readable work of non-fiction.

The Sense of an Ending won the 2011 Booker Prize and is one of the books on the short list that I want to read. Gavin of Page247 and Matthew of A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook both give it worth reading reviews. Matthew calls the novel, “a poignant portrait of the costs and benefits of time passing, of friendship and love, in particular love, how it validates and vindicates life.’ And Gavin writes, “(is) one that I wanted to read in one sitting and, when finished, knew I wanted to read again.  It is elegant, sometimes funny and always disturbing, offering insights into youthful mistakes, loss and memory.  It is a mystery, deeply emotional and psychological.  It feels true.” Tony Webster is a retiring divorced man all set to enjoy his last years when he receives the diary of friend Adrian who committed suicide shortly after graduation. The diary forces Tony to look at events from a different perspective and rattles his carefully ordered life he has set up for himself.

Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories by Edith Pearlman has just won The National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. Pearlman (born in 1936) is a prolific and award winning writer of both fiction and non-fiction short works. I have never heard of her but Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes has “read about five of the stories in Binocular Vision and can only say that I hope this win gets Edith Pearlman read more — it’s excellent.” I consider Trevor is one of the best reviewers of short fiction I have come across and his recommendation is good enough for me to look for this book. The collection includes the best of previous collections as well as new stories.

Happy reading!

 

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Excellent Women

Love was rather a terrible thing, I decided next morning, remembering the undercurrents of the evening before. Not perhaps my cup of tea. It would be best not to see too much of the Napiers and their disturbing kind of life, but to meet only people like Julian and Winifred Malory and Dora Caldicote, from whom I had a letter that morning. She hinted vaguely at ‘unpleasantness’ at school, perhaps the affair William had told me about, and asked if she might come and stay with me for a part of her Easter holiday. So I busied myself getting the little spare-room ready, arranging daffodils in a bowl on the mantle piece, and putting out the rather useless little embroidered guest towels. The room looked pretty and comfortable, like an illustration in one of the women’s magazines. I knew it would not look like that for long after Dora’s arrival and was a little sad when I went to talk to her over her unpacking and saw the familiar bulging canvas bag and her hair-net lying on the mantlepiece.

‘Why, Mildred” she exclaimed, ‘What have done to yourself? You look different.”

No compliments of course; Dora was too old and honest a friend to ever flatter me, but she had the power of making me feel rather foolish, especially as I had not realized that she might find any difference in my appearance since the last time we met. I suppose I had taken to using a little more make-up, my hair was more carefully arranged, my clothes a little less drab. I was hardly honest enough to admit even to myself that meeting the Napiers had made this difference and I certainly did not admit it to Dora. (pg. 100)

Excellent Women is Barbara Pym’s second published novel coming out in 1950. The title refers to those women who keep things moving along from planning the church jumble sales to providing the needed cup of tea (or Brandy) in times of crisis – those excellent women who often go unnoticed and unsung. Mildred is a spinster, the daughter of a late clergyman and his wife, who lives in a small flat in a somewhat unsuitable part of London. It is the 1950’s and there are still shortages due to the war and a number of unmarried or widowed women. In fact Mildred works part-time for a charitable organization that helps gentlewomen down on their luck. Mildred is also quite active in her Anglo-Catholic church and her two closest friends are Father Malory and his sister.

As Mildred is puttering along in her somewhat dull life, the flat below hers becomes occupied by the Napiers. Helena is an anthropologist and her handsome and charming husband Rocky is in navy having recently spent his time in Italy arranging the social life of an Admiral. Mildred is a witty, perceptive, and highly observant woman in her early thirties and her contact with the Napiers gives her the opportunity to branch out and explore new realms from attending a lecture at the local anthropological society to changing the way she presents herself to the world.

The writing is light and witty – this is a comedy of the old school – subtle and slightly ironic. There is a reminiscence to or a resemblance with Jane Austin (“IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”) with Pym writing:

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent times, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say there is no hope for her.” (pg. 5)

Mildred resents this perception while at the same time living up to it as curiosity seems to be a natural human inclination. She also finds herself unwillingly accepting a greater role in events at the insistence of those around her who see Mildred as an easy conduit to managing difficult and unwanted tasks. Mildred also uses her curiosity to step outside of her assumed role and nature often behaving quite differently than expected much to the consternation of some of the characters.

All of this elevates Excellent Women beyond a simple comedy of post-war manners and relationships. The novel becomes, much like Austen’s work, an examination of the growth of an individual – growth where flaws are accepted and worked with and the best parts of someone’s nature are highlighted. All together Excellent Women was an excellent read.

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There were several books published in February that look interesting which, of course, adds to the ever growing to-be-read list. Here is a smattering of them:

Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron: Cameron is the author of several novels including Andorra  and The Weekend. Cameron states on his website that he is heavily influenced by such writers as Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor, and Penelope Mortimer. His latest work is a period piece set in the 1950’s. Coral is a nurse who travels to the English Midlands to help nurse a dying old woman. Also in the house is the woman’s son, a war veteran and a closeted homosexual. Clement, the son eventually asks Coral to marry him and having no family or romantic experience, she says yes. This spare novel is about delusion, alienation, duplicity, manners, and love – how it appears and how the emotion itself can transform within a relationship.

Newspaper and Book Blog Reviews

From NPR: Some novels hit you twice: while you’re caught in their spell, and then again, after you’ve finished and are left wondering, What was that all about?…In retrospect, Cameron’s mesmerizing, melancholy novel is not as pat as it seems. And that’s where it really gets interesting.

From The Wall Street Journal: …is spare and unassuming. Mr. Cameron announces his talent in the way that matters: by telling a riveting tale with an often heartbreakingly pure prose style…It is as though he has set an X-ray machine before the traditional English drawing room, leaving its demure occupants exposed in their loneliness and well-meant follies—and revealing them as movingly human.

From Shelf Awareness: At first glance, Coral Glynn, Peter Cameron’s moody 1950s British countryside novel, is like a painting by Magritte: the disparate parts don’t go together in any conventional way, but when you look at it for a while, the internal logic becomes apparent.

From It’s Either Sadness or Euphoria: This novel has all of the makings of the novels of days gone by—death, suspicion, misunderstandings, unrequited love (in many forms), disparity between classes, secrets, and intriguing characters.

Me and You by Niccolo Ammaniti and translated by Kylee Doust. Ammaniti is a literary star in Italy with bestsellers and works made into film. Me and Youhas sold over 600,000 copies in Italy alone and is also being made into a film. It is a short work about a fourteen year-old misfit with no friends and parents who worry about his strangeness. He lies to his parents that he has been invited to a ski week and sets up camp in the basement. His half-sister, who has issues of her own, discovers him in the basement and they form an uneasy alliance.

Newspaper and Book Blog Reviews:

From The Independent: Ammaniti’s prose is a delight. Spare and undecorated, it nevertheless manages to entertain with vivid phrases and imagery…The ending is shockingly potent, though unanswered questions abound about the 10 years in between. A dynamite novella, it leaves the reader craving more.

From Fiction and More: This is one of those books that somehow manage, in an almost magical way, to steal a reader’s heart; and that not so much because of their myth, but because of the prose; a prose that sounds tender, almost nostalgic, and which every now and then seems to converse with the silence and the psyches

From Baltimore Reads: Me and You culminates in a scene that is both heartbreaking and believable – a wonderful combination for a novel…For anyone looking for a quick read that is still full of depth and emotion, Me and You would be a great book to pick up.  Ammaniti has won awards and recognition in the past for his writing (I’m Not Scared; As God Commands) and this book doesn’t disappoint.

Five Bells by Gail Jones: A single day at Sydney’s Circular Quay and four individuals each reflecting on their life and their losses. This book is not for people who like plot-driven narratives. But if you, like me, relish quiet character propelled novels that deal with memory, the movement of time, life, and loss – this one will be on your list.

Newspaper and Book Blog Reviews

From The Independent: Ultimately, though, this is a story peopled by achingly real characters, memorably related in delicate, ornate prose, and throbbing with loss. Death comes to claim us all, it seems to say, so enjoy the transient glory of life while you can.

From Popmatters: Each of these characters is obsessed with some element of his or her past, and the way they envision the opera house foreshadows how they will cope with “waking into the visionary present.” Though it is thinly plotted, Five Bells makes beautiful work of showing how our preoccupations with our pasts can usurp the place of the meaning inherent to new experiences. The characters are looking for something new without realizing that nothing can ever really be new…The effect of its poetic prose is, ironically, to stimulate the reader intellectually. It does one thing, and it does it very well: it explores the feeling we have of never being quite present, and whether it is possible to move forward by moving backwards. It is precise and effective, and deserves to be taken for what it is, for us to read it meditatively, not looking ahead to guess what will happen, but finding where it resonates with us here and now.

From The Compulsive Reader: Like the epic poem from which it takes its title, Gail Jones’ Five Bells is a story about a series of inner illuminations or moments…ones’ prose is delicate and richly poetic, always moving behind and beneath the superficial to not only get at the emotions and thought processes of her characters, but also at the memories of the past that illuminate the present.

Other Releases of Note:

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey – 1920’s Alaska, a childless couple, a magical child made of snow

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Eddugyan – Winner of The Giller Prize and finalist for The Booker Prize. Three black Jazz musicians trying to survive in Paris during the war. One is arrested by the Nazis – a study in what happened and who is culpable.

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt – A young girl (during the Blitz in England) discovers the myths of the Asgard Gods.

Watergate: A Novel by Thomas Mallon – a fictionalized account of Watergate through the eyes of seven people.

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