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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,
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"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",
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