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"The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards" by Kristopher Jansma

July 07, 2014 by PatLeach
There's a special pleasure to a book that's read on a trip. I certainly sensed this in "The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards" by Kristopher Jansma, which I started and finished during a recent trip to Chicago for a library conference.

It makes a perfect example of why I love reading the titles from the Notable Books List each year--I come across fabulous books that I would have missed otherwise.

Basically this novel circles around an unnamed narrator and his two most important friends. The story opens as the narrator describes how his mother, a flight attendant, often left  him in the care of vendors at the airport. His ability to fit in, especially to mix among wealthy people, leads to a lifelong pattern of dishonesty. He meets the man who becomes his best friend in their college English class. That friend soon writes a fabulously successful novel, though his life is shadowed by addiction and mental illness. Through that friend, the narrator meets the woman he loves but can never marry. Much of the energy in this novel is generated as the three of them come together, then fall apart.

Each of the ten chapters could stand alone as a short story, focusing on a particular time and place. Jansma's genius is how he uses these pieces to pull the whole story together, how an image introduced in one place returns in another.

How does a writer avoid revealing what others don't want shared? When should a writer betray a friend to further success? What are the chances for success when relationships are built on lies? How can broken friendships be mended? When is honesty required?

I was surprised by how readable this book was, given those heavy questions. I credit Jansma's clever eye for detail and ability to draw attention to a new place. The book goes from the East Coast to New York City to India to Africa and many places between. Part of the pleasure in the reading was just learning where it would take up next. Meg Woltitzer aptly used the phrase, "playfully weird" about this book. I would add "playfully smart." I know that I missed many well-placed literary allusions.

I have confessed before to my Pollyanna-ish hope that at last one person will learn and grow in a novel, and end up a better person. That happened here, though it wasn't easy or pretty.

I'm not aware of many  people who've read this.  I'm hoping a few of my friends will do so soon, so that we can discuss it. I'll recommend this to people who like literary fiction, especially if they don't insist on the work being too dark and pessimistic. In the heart of this story of friendship, betrayal, and love, stands that critical question--CAN a leopard change its spots?


Tagged in: Notables, fiction, Kristopher Jansma,
Comments: 0

"The Boys in the Boat" by Daniel James Brown

July 01, 2014 by PatLeach
After a break to dip into the One Book One Lincoln finalists, I've returned to the Notable Books List, and "The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics" by Daniel James Brown.

It's the story of the 1936 Olympic rowing team, essentially the team from the University of Washington. Brown extensively interviewed rower Joe Rantz not long before Rantz died a few years ago, and it is Rantz who stands at the center of this story. Around him are his crewmates, his remarkable coach, Al Ulbrickson, and George Pocock, a boatbuilder and rowing guru. As as a group they exemplified how a successful team far exceeds the sum of its parts.

Brown creates the context of America in the Great Depression, and more specifically, the lives of working class people at that time. Rantz and several teammates worked back-breaking jobs to afford their classes, and Rantz was often teased about his ratty clothes. In addition, Rantz was abandoned by his father, learning to make his own way. Brown contrasts their situation with that of teams from the Ivy League or Europe.

The strong narrative thread of "The Boys in the Boat" helps it cross over for people who typically read fiction. Brown incorporates information about rowing, history, and politics without losing the thread of the plot. He builds credible characters from interviews and contemporary articles. This book employs a rhythm typical of sport stories, with background information framing descriptions of contests.

This team became magical at crucial moments, when all nine men in the boat pulled together, worked together, and won together. Brown explores Rantz's decision to trust, truly trust, that his teammates would do what needed to be done even though his own family life taught him reasonably to trust only himself.

I'll recommend this to a variety of readers, both of fiction and nonfiction. Fans of strong sports stories should dig into "The Boys in the Boat," especially readers interested in the storied 1936 Olympics in Berlin. This makes an excellent book group choice, with its universal themes of history, purpose, and success against great odds.


Tagged in: Notables, nonfiction, rowing, Daniel James Brown,
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"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

May 15, 2014 by PatLeach
It took some time, but I finally finished all 771 pages of "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt, very likely the longest novel on this year's Notable Books list. This book has received plenty of attention. I felt like I was arriving a little late to the ball.


It's the story of Theo, whose mother dies in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York when Theo is 13. In fact, he was with her that day. In the ensuing chaos he ends up in possession of a priceless Dutch painting, "The Goldfinch." The course of Theo's life once his mother is gone includes his stay with a rich classmate's family, a drug-colored exile in Las Vegas where he meets his best-friend-for-life, Boris, and a return to New York where Theo goes into business with one of the warmest-hearted men in America. The novel ends where it begins, Theo in Amsterdam with blood on his hands.

I found myself surprising intrigued by all of this. One reviewer called the book "Dickensian," and that helped me put the unlikely and usually crazy characters, not to mention the unlikely plot, in perspective. I liked how people seemed to come and go. Another reviewer referred to the books' "bewitching urgency." I found myself liking Theo despite his passivity and alarming tendency to make poor choices over and over and over. I enjoyed the long riffs on art history and furniture restoration. I didn't take the whole thing seriously, but read it more like an educated romp.

Some of my friends found it lacking. Few books could live up to the hype of "The Goldfinch." There seems to be general agreement that Tartt would have improved the novel had she edited out a hundred or so pages. Sometimes key information seemed to missing even in a section filled with dense detail.

Looking back on it, I see that even though I read it from a shallow place, I was touched by Theo's descriptions of his grief and loneliness, by the painting's impact on his sense of himself, by my ragged hope that his friend Hobie really was as warm-hearted as he seemed. I made myself slow down for Tartt's final-chapter reflections on the impact a piece of art can have, and found them true to my own experience.

In the end, I recommend it. Not as the Great American Novel, but as a one-of-a-kind work that pulls together a remarkable collection of personalities, topics, and places. I salute Tartt for her writer's mind that chose it all, then wove it all into place.


Tagged in: "The Goldfinch", Notable Books, novels, Donna Tartt,
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"A Tale for the Time Being"

May 05, 2014 by PatLeach
Once again, the American Library Association's Notable Books list led me to a book I hadn't heard much about --"A Tale for the Time Being" by Ruth Ozeki. In reading through reviews, I've come to realize that plenty of people were talking about it, and I'd missed it somehow.

Ozeki created this novel in two strands. One is a diary kept by a girl in Japan early in the twenty-first century, the other a third person narrative about an author named Ruth who finds that diary, washed up on the Pacific short in Canada, along with some letters and a watch, all kept dry in a Hello Kitty lunchbox wrapped in plastic bags.

The girl, Nao, says she intends to write the story of her remarkable 104-year-old great grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun. Instead she writes primarily about herself, and much more harrowing, about how she's bullied at school to the point of rape. Nao is no angel, but neither should a young person know such isolation, or regard suicide as a reasonable response.

Ruth becomes more and more pulled in as she slowly reads Nao's story. Even though she realizes that years have passed since Nao wrote the diary, she feels an urgent need to communicate to someone that Nao may be a danger to herself. Ruth had developed writer's block while working on a memoir, and Nao's story seems to the fill the void it left. The life Ruth and her artist husband have chosen, on an island with barely 50 other people and crazy weather, contrasts vividly with Nao's life in Tokyo.

Contrasts propel both the action and the ideas. The contrast between Ruth and Nao. The contrasts between Nao's previous happy life in California, her sad life in Tokyo, her great-grandmother's life as a nun and her late uncle's life as a kamikaze. The contrast between the tiny population of Ruth's island with the number of times people drop in on her. The contrast between what people initially think of each other, and what they later learn. The contrasts between ideas of time, mortality, love, cruelty, and suffering.

Ozeki successfully creates a whole of these parts. Nao introduces big ideas despite her youth and apparent failure at school. Ruth and her husband reasonably discuss and build on those ideas as they work their way through the diary. Ozeki creates an energetic young person's voice as effectively as she describes the married life of two introverted artists. Ozeki's willingness to explore the despair wrought by bullying and isolation intensified the entire novel. While I sensed the action beginning to fizzle as I neared the conclusion, that's more a quibble than a problem.

I recommend this generally to people who enjoy literary fiction. I certainly recommend it to book groups. The novel struck me as an extended conversation between people who'd never met each other, and I sense that there's plenty here for readers to keep that conversation going.


Tagged in: Ruth Ozeki, notable fiction, notable fiction,
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"The Faraway Nearby" by Rebecca Solnit

March 13, 2014 by PatLeach
Rebecca Solnit's "The Faraway Nearby" exemplifies my favorite thing about the American Library Association's Notable Books List--I find excellent books there that I hadn't heard about previously.

"The Faraway Nearby" begins with apricots, picked from Solnit's mother's tree. The three boxes of apricots were too many to manage, her mother too far gone with Alzheimer's to know. Solnit's preservation of the fruit via jams, liqueurs, and other devices contributes one of the first metaphors in this rich book.

I was intrigued by the title, "The Faraway Nearby." Here is what she says about that, "After years in New York  City, Georgia O'Keeffe moved to rural New Mexico, from which she would sign her letters to the people she loved, 'from the faraway nearby.'" (p. 108)

Solnit employs thirteen chapters, the first six leading to the seventh, "knot." The remaining six mirror the first, going backwards to apricots once again, ending where she began. Within this firm structure, she rambles amid her mother's story, her own cancer scare, and an artistic escape to Iceland. How she works in Che Guevara, arctic explorers, Scheherazade, Frankenstein, Buddhists, and others, is a wonder. And yet it feels like excellent conversation over coffee, how she goes from one story to another, linked by ideas. Throughout, she reflects on how we tell our stories. She considers how we work over the material in our past to create a promising future.

I found particular resonance in this excerpt, as she describes how her friends took her in hand through a serious health scare. "People gathered from all directions, and I was taken care of beautifully...Afterward, during my convalescence, I occasionally wished that life was always like this, that I was always being showered with flowers and assistance and solicitousness, but you only get it when you need it. If you're lucky, you get it when you need it. To know that it was there when I needed it changed everything a little in the long run." (p. 122) This perfectly describes my own experience when my husband died, and she's right. It has changed everything a little.

At first, I was put off by MY wanting the action to move forward more quickly. I won't recommend this to readers who want to march through a plot. It was worth slowing down to savor the extras that she brings to her story of herself. I do indeed recommend this to those who enjoy a lusciously long conversation through unexpected imagery and reflection, as if the coffee pot would never run dry.


Tagged in: nonfiction, memoirs, Notable Books, "The Faraway Nearby",
Comments: 0

"Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See" by Juliann Garey

February 25, 2014 by PatLeach
I chose "Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See" by Juliann Garey because it's on this year's American Library Association Notable Books list.

Briefly, it's a novel about a man's descent into mental illness, in this case bipolar disorder, eventually climbing back toward a glimmer of hope for his recovery.

Greyson Todd narrates all twelve sections, each correlating to an electroshock treatment in a psychiatric ward. He includes flashbacks to his adulthood and childhood, revealing the lingering impact of his father's mental illness.

Todd has achieved high success as a studio executive in California when he decides to leave his wife and daughter. It has become more and more difficult to hide the manifestations of his illness. He has ample money, so he travels to various countries, living all kinds of adventures before that money runs out.

I've been reading most of the books on the Notable Books lists for over 20 years, and my bar is now set very high. This one barely measures up. I can't point to particular faults with it, I simply didn't feel the pull of strong narrative or compelling characters.

Even so, it is a potent book group book. Where Garey excels in this story is when revealing the connection between Todd's behavior and the progress of his illness. In doing so, she asks important questions. What does it mean to hit rock bottom? How do we respond to someone who's mentally ill, especially when he is violent? How do families re-build? Can mental illness be cured without love? How does trust ever happen?


Tagged in: Notable Books, fiction, Juliann Garey, Juliann Garey,
Comments: 0

"The Woman Upstairs"

February 20, 2014 by PatLeach
Working my way through the American Library Association Notable Books list, I picked up "The Woman Upstairs" by Claire Messud.

Its narrator is Nora Eldridge, a third grade teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She introduces this novel, "How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that." Nora intended to be an artist. But that has been set aside. At 42, she is a popular teacher, a dutiful daughter, and a dependable friend. She is "the woman upstairs." And nobody knows how furious she is.

She goes on to tell how five years previous her dreams were reawakened by a remarkable family who entered her life. First the son joins her class, then the mother who is an artist invites her to share space, then the father, a visiting professor, becomes special to her. Each of them possesses a personality that matches Nora's needs--their jigsaw pieces seem to complete her puzzle. But it doesn't last, and worse, it leads to betrayal.

Ongoing foreshadowing led me to expect some kind of huge awful explosion. It didn't happen as I expected, and perhaps that is why this is a strong book. It seems entirely realistic--this earthshaking interior change in Nora, instead of propelling her into a life of art, kindles fury instead. She stokes it because it makes her feel alive.

Messud has mastered choosing and describing key interactions. Nora is aware of feminist aspects of her situation and  sees herself enduring dates with duty. Her telling leaves plenty of space for the reader to see more than she does.

The story reads like an extended conversation. It's tailor made for book groups. I salute Messud for the open ending, a perfect discussion point. I still can't decide whether it's hopeless or hopeful. I'll recommend this to many of my reading friends, and look forward to extending the conversation with them.


Tagged in: fiction, Notables, Claire Messud, "The Woman Upstairs",
Comments: 0

Herman Koch's "The Dinner"

February 06, 2014 by PatLeach
The American Library Association's Notable Books List (for adults) was announced Sunday, January 26. It includes "The Dinner" by Herman Koch, a contemporary novel first published in the Netherlands in 2009, now available in English.

The action happens during a dinner at a high-end Amsterdam restaurant. Two brothers and their wives are gathering to discuss their sons. The narrator, one of the brothers, seems to poke fun at every aspect of the restaurant's style, food, and service. He's an unemployed teacher, his brother a candidate for prime minister of the country. Slowly we learn that their sons may be responsible for a death. The dinner conversation will address what comes next. In almost comic ways, the dinner is interrupted by telephone calls, trips to the restroom, and other extended absences. The story takes a sharp turn when the narrator reveals his own history of mental illness and violence, building the bridge to events that grow out of control. Koch seems to be almost calling a bluff with violence, probing what can happen when the stakes are that high. It puts the sons' alarming behavior in an even more alarming context. I couldn't stop reading, a testimony to Koch's plotting and pacing.

Some of the scenes struck me as completely harrowing, partly due to the contrast with the initial setting in the overly civilized restaurant. I appreciated how Koch allowed the narrator's tone to move from humorous though begrudging to almost monstrous. Looking back, I salute Koch for so deftly combining civilization, humor and violence, thus heightening the impact of all. The references to Tolstoy's quote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" remind the reader that this is a distinctive family indeed.

I recommend this to book groups, readers of suspense, and others who seek books that plumb extreme behavior. The classic book discussion issues of how children are raised, how far parents will go to protect them, how mental illness shapes behavior, and how families communicate are all right here. And more.


Tagged in: Notable Books, fiction, "The Dinner", Herman Koch,
Comments: 0

"Longbourn" by Jo Baker

February 03, 2014 by PatLeach
I learned about "Longbourn: a Novel" by Jo Baker when a friend posted about it on Facebook. She wrote, "Just finished the best book I have read in months, 'Longbourn.' Read it immediately. It will fill you with joy." And Voila! I was perusing the New Books display at Bennett Martin Library, and there it was. It contributed to one of my favorite things--a weekend when I started AND finished a book.

"Longbourn" might be described as "Pride and Prejudice" as experienced by the household staff. Jo Baker takes the skeleton of events from "Pride and Prejudice" but writes a totally separate, stands-on-it-own story. Its primary focus is Sarah, a young housemaid who came into service from the orphanage. She comes across as practical, competent, and intelligent. Once a new footman joins the staff, we see how she learns for love. Her awareness of the limitations of her situation grows as she finds herself wanting more than a life of laundering, scrubbing, and emptying chamber pots. Baker's spot-on depiction of the stress of difficult work, done with only the family's good will as job security, keeps the story from growing saccharine.

I was struck by how well Baker portrayed realistic misunderstandings as people get to know each other romantically. She impressed me when one of the contenders for Sarah's affection shows himself to be a much better man than we expected. Overall, I admired how she gathered together the household staff and created a family of them under the wing of Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper. It rang true when sometimes their life together seemed claustrophobic in how closely they work with and observe each other.

I'm not sure this book needs to be recommended since it can ride on the coattails of the always popular Jane Austen and currently popular  "Downton Abbey." Even so, I will recommend it to readers who will appreciate the quality Jo Baker instilled here. Her writing doesn't try to be Jane Austen's, but might be described as of the period.

Aside from a few quibbles about some anachronistic social views, I agree with my friend. "Read it immediately. It will fill you with joy."


Tagged in: fiction, Jane Austen, Jo Baker, Longbourn,
Comments: 0

"O Pioneers!"

January 24, 2014 by PatLeach
Among my 2013 New Year's resolutions was to re-read Willa Cather. I began by listening to the audiobook of "Song of the Lark" during a road trip to Colorado in July. My trip ended before the book did, and for days I invented errands around town so that I could hear more.

Over the holidays, I took home the scholarly edition of "O Pioneers!" published by the University of Nebraska Press. I just got to it, and experienced one of my favorite things--starting and finishing a novel over one weekend.

Originally published in 1913, "O Pioneers!" centers on Alexandra Bergson, who comes to the great plains of Nebraska when her family arrives from Sweden to homestead. She becomes a prominent and successful farmer in her own right, persuading her brothers to stay with the land in very hard times, eventually enjoying the fruits of their courage and persistence. Although the land itself counts as a restless character, the small circle of people in Alexandra's orbit creates a whirl of drama. Her college-educated younger brother falls in love with a married woman in the neighborhood. Alexandra's rekindled friendship with a childhood playmate troubles her stolid older brothers. Tragedy happens.

Two things in particular struck me in this reading. One is Cather's attention to shaping the various characters, especially the immigrant farmers and families, in ways that confer respect. Second is her use of straightforward language, the voice of a well-spoken and thoughtful narrator, as if one who grew up feeling some affection for all of these people, is telling the story.

Although my own homesteading ancestors grew up in the United States, I feel an automatic kinship with the pioneer story. I can't read this book without that background hovering. I'm curious how others experience it.

On another personal note, the late Susan J. Rosowski was one of the editors of this scholarly edition, along with Charles W. Mignon. I took one course from Professor Rosowski at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and recall her passion for Cather, as well as her kindness to her students. I don't quite remember how my late husband and I happened to attend an event at Rosowki's home when Joan Acocella, a writer for the New Yorker was visiting Nebraska. Acocella's expertise is dance, but she has developed a passion for Willa Cather. On this evening, Acocella made an informal presentation on the course of Cather's reputation over the years, deftly weaving social and political history with literary considerations. Acocella eventually wrote a book on the topic, "Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism." She also wrote a very recent blog piece on the 100th anniversary of "O Pioneers!" (spoiler alert if you haven't read the book), a readable essay that combines literary passion with muscular writing. Read it. And then go read "O Pioneers!"


Tagged in: Willa Cather, "O Pioneers!", fiction, Nebraska,
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