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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,
Comments: 0

"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,
Comments: 0

"The Good Lord Bird" by James McBride

January 09, 2014 by PatLeach
I chose "The Good Lord Bird" by James McBride because it won the 2013 National Book Award, and because I so enjoyed his memoir, "The Color of Water."

This novel is narrated in dialect by Henry Shackleford, a young slave who is freed by John Brown, then taken in as a member of Brown's close band of followers, in the years leading up to Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. The twist is that Brown at first believes that Henry is female, and thus begin Henry's years of dressing and living as a girl.

Sunday's Lincoln Journal Star (January 5, 2014) included a review of this book by Los Angeles Times reviewer, Hector Tobar. He noted the awkward feeling of the droll, absurd, and funny story resting on the serious history of racism and the fight against slavery. I sensed this same irony, even as I enjoyed McBride's ability to turn a phrase and reveal sly humor. Describing a prostitute's flower dress, he writes, "that thing was so tight that when she moved, the daisies got all mixed up with the azaleas."

"Henrietta" exemplifies the slave necessary of seldom showing his/her true self. She has much to hide. Henrietta realizes the outsider she is, a very pale former slave with no status, yet considered a good luck charm.

The intriguing title is a colloquial reference to the ivory billed woodpecker, a remarkable bird of the southeastern American forests, now considered most likely extinct. Its distinctive feathers play a role in the story.

I recommend this to people who like to stay on top of annual book prize winners, and generally to those who enjoy rich language. Key to its enjoyment is the reader's willingness to set aside expectations about how a novel based on such serious events OUGHT to be, and go along for this ride of cleverness and apparent shallowness. Truth is, some pretty deep thoughts lie below that surface. McBride concludes this novel with a brief meditation by Henry on the trees eventually felled by creatures such as the good lord bird, "that it would someday fall and feed the others." Sounds like John Brown himself.


Tagged in: National Book Award, fiction, James McBride, John Brown,
Comments: 0

"Gaudy Night" by Dorothy L. Sayers

December 30, 2013 by PatLeach
I often re-read classics or "oldies-but-goodies" over the holidays. This year, I found myself absorbed in "Gaudy Night: a Lord Peter Wimsey Novel" by renowned British mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers. Written and set in 1935, it has more of Harriet Vane, successful mystery writer, and less of Lord Peter, aristocratic amateur detective and Renaissance man, than her other mysteries.

The title refers to a reunion event at Harriet's college (deliciously named Shrewsbury), modeled on the women's college at Oxford. It is just a few years since the notorious case involving Harriet's lover's death by arsenic. While at Shrewsbury, she receives a poison pen letter, and comes across another ominous communication. Later she is invited back to investigate ongoing alarming behaviors among the all-female faculty, students, and staff. Although Lord Peter's secret work for the British government has him away on the continent, eventually he joins up with Harriet and the mystery is solved.

The character of Harriet Vane is generally considered an autobiographical depiction of Sayers, who completed degree requirements at Oxford in the years before women were granted degrees there. In "Gaudy Night," discussions of women's education go on and on, as do reflections on the impact of education on women's fitness for marriage and motherhood, and consideration of of the degree to which a woman's scholarly rigor would hold up against her personal loyalties. Some consider this the first feminist mystery.

Sayers' own classical education is much on display, with Latin phrases sprinkled throughout, and quotes from classical authors introducing each chapter. Her writing is both lovely and lively; she seems to enjoy poking fun at convention. The incipient romance between Harriet and Lord Peter adds emotional energy to the already charged atmosphere, even as they conform to academic and societal proprieties.

A thin thread in the story refers to events in Germany at this time, particular eugenics and the role of women there, topics addressed in a book I recently finished, "Hitler's Furies."

As I was reading "Gaudy Night," I sensed the datedness of some of the discussions, and wasn't sure that it had aged well. But as I've reflected on it further, I've realilzed how unresolved and relevant many of the issues remain. I recommend "Gaudy Night" to mystery fans, and to students of popular writing or feminism.


Tagged in: fiction, mysteries, Dorothy L. Sayers, Lord Peter, Harriet Vane,
Comments: 0

Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Lowland"

December 26, 2013 by PatLeach
I made the mistake of allowing some time to pass since I finished "The Lowland" by Jhumpa Lahiri. I much prefer writing immediately after finishing a book.

I chose this book because I so enjoyed Lahiri's lovely writing in "Unaccustomed Earth" several years ago when it was part of the 2009 American Library Association Notable Books list. That collection of short stories captured so well how people want to do the right thing, want to love each other well, and so often fall short. Yet hope remains. Lahiri has mastered the art of revealing big issues through small observations.

What I recall from "The Lowland" is that same yearning, and the author's continued kindness in drawing attention to good intentions and honest personal assessment, even when the reader can clearly see that behavior falls short.

This is the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, born in Calcutta just before Indian independence. Subhash is more withdrawn and quiet, Udayan more adventurous and impulsive. Born barely a year apart, they seem separate parts of one personality. Subhash ends up pursuing an academic career in the United States. Udayan remains in India, living with his parents, engaging in dangerous politics, and marrying for love. Udayan's untimely death (in the lowlands behind their house) shapes the novel, both in the time leading up to it, and in the subsequent passage of time for Subhash, Udayan's widow, and others who follow. The background of Indian culture and the period following independence provide a distinct backdrop for the general themes of sibling bonds, family ties, finding one's way in a new country, forgiveness, and the balance of individual dreams with social responsibilities.

I recommend this heartily to fiction readers, with an especially strong nod toward book groups.


Tagged in: Jhumpa Lahiri, fiction, India, "The Lowland",
Comments: 0


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