February 25, 2014 by PatLeach
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,
February 20, 2014 by PatLeach
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",
February 06, 2014 by PatLeach
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,
February 03, 2014 by PatLeach
"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,
January 24, 2014 by PatLeach
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,
January 09, 2014 by PatLeach
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,
December 30, 2013 by PatLeach
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,
December 26, 2013 by PatLeach
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",
December 19, 2013 by PatLeach
In the book's opening scene, Ursula Todd enters a bar and shoots Adolf Hitler. In the second, she is born and dies immediately. In the third, she is born and lives. As Ursula's story moves along, she is reincarnated several times and is able to avert tragedies that happened in previous lives. She always feels somewhat apart from others, experiencing fierce deja vu and vivid premonitions.
In Kate Atkinson's capable hands, this works. Much of the story centers on Ursula's family and a small circle of friends. Her relationship to them seems not to evolve significantly with each new life. A second aspect of the novel involves Ursula and World War II, when she experiences some lives in London before and during the Blitz, others in Germany in Hitler's social circles.
An omniscient narrator tells the stories, ending each life usually with the phrase, "darkness fell." The distance of the narrator contrasts with the intensity of Ursula's unique experience.
Although I absolutely believe that this novel works well, I've been slightly reluctant to recommend it to others, partly because the whole reincarnation idea seems too fantasy-like, too made-up. Perhaps I'm not willing enough to follow a novelist down the path of "What if the world were different in THIS way...."
Even so, I see this as an excellent book group choice. It covers so many bases--family relationships, the World War II era, the role of women, and the meaning of mortality. "Life After Life" invites readers to reconsider a basic idea of how our world works, and then to ponder how countless ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, rest on that one idea.
Tagged in: fiction, reincarnation, Kate Atkinson,
December 16, 2013 by PatLeach
I'd just recently finished the novel, "HHhH" by Laurent Binet, also set in the Eastern European areas taken over by the Nazi government. With that still in mind, I learned a good deal from "Hitler's Furies" and found it readable despite its serous subject matter.
Wendy Lower is a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College, and a consultant for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Here she digs more deeply into the general understanding the the Final Solution depended on the participation or cooperation of the general German population. Half of that population was female, and yet the role of women has been seldom explored.
In "Hitler's Furies" she tells the stories of particular women who fall into the categories of witnesses, accomplices, or perpetrators. Typically, these women were teachers, nurses, camp guards or wives of German officials. Many of them had moved to the countries to the east, where Germany was clearing space for the German people to live.
Lower begins with a chapter called "The Lost Generation of German Women" to set the context for the behavior she describes. This was key--looking back on this time we wonder how it ever could have happened. Lower tries to put the reader in the period before the Nazis rose to power, before Germany was defeated, when the Nazis seemed to offer the redemption of the country.
The narrative is steeped in the ongoing role of anti-Semitism. Lower describes how the existing prejudice was drilled and shaped into a pattern of brutal behavior. Also not be to ignored is the contrasting societal expectation that all women should be natural nurturers who would unite in their opposition to this behavior. Lower probes the intersection of these forces.
Lower writes as an academic. She's careful to use reliable sources, and careful as well to draw limited conclusions. While she sometimes describes unbelievably violent behavior, she does so in exploration of understanding, not for sensation.
I'll recommend this to readers interested in this era, or in the role of women, or those seeking a sense for how a country can create such an effective and horrific organization of death.
Tagged in: Hitler,
December 09, 2013 by PatLeach
The intriguing title refers to the first letters of the German words in the phrase, "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich." Indeed, as Himmler's protege Heydrich had risen in power to be a man much feared. His brutal treatment of the Czechoslovakians, for whom he was named "protector," typified Germany's harsh conduct in the countries it took over to the east.
Binet details the steps in Heydrich's rise to power, which is quite well chronicled. He does his best to note how the group of assassins came to this place and time, where there is much less information. I found myself wrapped up in the suspense of their all coming together, knowing the stakes for the "guilty" as well as the "innocent."
As I read this, I often wondered by Binet didn't simply write an account that would be considered nonfiction. A distinctive aspect of this novel is that Binet often inserts himself directly into the story, describing quandaries of missing information, or how his book compares to others, or how to portray the reliability of someone's story. I sensed his concern for creating an account that was truthful, and found these insertions intriguing. What wasn't clear was the degree to which his reflections were actual descriptions of his thought process, or to which they were simply a writer's technique.
The story is told in 327 pages, 257 sections varying in length from a short paragraph to several pages. At the point when the assassins attack Heydrich, I expected several short descriptions of action. Instead, Binet provides a four-page paragraph of chronology.
The outcome is horrific--reprisals for this act were extravagantly brutal. It took several days for the assassins to be tracked down, and even longer to be nearly flushed out of their hiding place before they committed suicide. In the end, Binet seems to want to show that the act was worthwhile.
The Nazi era continues to provide fodder for thoughtful writing, and the size of its reading audience seems to hold steady. There's something about this book that had my thoughts returning to it much later, long after I'd moved on to my next book. I recommend this to those who are interested in the era, who appreciate unusual novel styles, and to people who tend to prefer nonfiction to fiction. Although it may not present the usual themes that many book groups seek, it begs to be read, and then it begs to be discussed.
Tagged in: fiction, Laurent Binet, Germany, historical fiction,
November 20, 2013 by PatLeach
Before he became a Supreme Court justice, and before he brought the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case to the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall's work at the NAACP took him all over the southern United States where race was a factor in court cases. A general pattern in his work was that the goal was to set up a successful appeal of a conviction. An acquittal was an impossible dream in nearly all of his cases.
Such was his strategy in the case of the Groveland Boys--four black men accused of raping a young white woman near Groveland, Florida, in 1949. King introduces a host of characters in setting the stage for this story--from the remarkable Sheriff Willis McCall to a woman reporter for a local newspaper to the four accused black men to the governors of Florida to members of the Ku Klux Klan to members of the local NAACP. King works hard to place the actions in the context of the time, where one foot is squarely in a system that as a matter of course denies justice to black people, and the other is stepping toward landmark decisions such as Brown vs. Board of Education.
He traces a chronology of beatings, shootings, and palpable danger for the men in custody, and for the outsider attorneys who arrive in Florida in their defense. In the end, what justice looks like seems pretty unimpressive. What does impress is King's ability to maintain the connection to context, and to weave a good deal of background information without losing the sense of story.
King's focus on Thurgood Marshall further highlights context, knowing what we do of his later Supreme Court career. In terms of how the story works, the immense scope of his personality and impact balance the intensity of what happened at Groveland. From my vantage point in 2013, continual questions arose regarding how things have changed--or not--since 1949.
I'm a nonfiction fan generally, and especially seek well-told stories of American History. I've been recommending this to others who seek such a book, and especially to people with an interest in justice. I think this could be an excellent nonfiction choice for book groups who typically choose fiction. There is much to learn, and to discuss, in "Devil in the Grove."
Tagged in: nonfiction, history, Thurgood Marshall,
November 12, 2013 by PatLeach
I've been using Pulitzer Prize lists, both winners and nominees, for my recent reading choices. This is how I happened upon "The Snow Child" by first-time novelist Eowyn Ivey.
Set in Alaska in the 1920's, it's the story of a married couple trying their hand at clearing land and farming. In their 50's, they're hoping for a new start, away from their New England families, and away from whispers and pity about their childlessness.
For the most part, the book is about Mabel, who fears that the move to Alaska has been a big mistake, that it simply reinforces the chill in the distance that has developed between her and her husband, Jack. Then a remarkable thing happens--a girl appears at their home. Mystery surrounds her. To whom does she belong? How does she survive in the brutal Alaskan landscape? Is she real?
The novel parallels the folk tale of the snow child, in ways that on the one hand seem exciting and hopeful, and on the other, strange and heartbreaking. The symbolism of the girl, and ice, and animals, creates a strong psychological undercurrent. Yet, Ivey crafts this story in ways that become compelling.
This is a great choice for book groups--I was dying to discuss it with someone--and thank my friend Shari for meeting me for coffee to talk it over, and for pointing out some aspects of style that provide intriguing clues.
I'm recommending this to a wide variety of fiction readers--its fascinating combination of marriage story, adventure, and magic, holds broad appeal. As we enter winter, this is a perfect choice for a cold-but-cozy evening.
Tagged in: fiction, Eowyn Ivey,
April 30, 2013 by PatLeach
One sentence summary--An adult Ojibwe man looks back on his youth, and his response to a brutal sexual attack on his mother.
One sentence evaluation--This is classic Erdrich, excellent writing and even better character development, all wrapped up in contemporary Ojibwe culture--a great book group book.
I find something especially compelling in novels about how crime impacts people. I recently finished another Notable, "Canada" by Richard Ford, with a similar construction of a man looking back on how crimes committed by his parents pulled his family apart.
In "The Round House," Joe tells the story of events that happened in 1988, his mother not coming home as expected, and then finally arriving home with awful injuries. Watching his parents floundering in response to the attack, he relies on his strong ties with friends and extended family. LIttle by little he comes to understand what happened to his mother; his father's role as a tribal judge pulls in further information, and interesting aspects of tribal law. When Joe puts in place his response, it's in the full context of all of the people who have surrounded him.
I'll recommend this to Erdrich's fans, and because it has few of the fantastic elements of some of her other books, I think it might work for people who haven't taken to some of her previous work. I think it'd also be of interest as an outlier for people who read traditional mystery series--a different slant on a crime novel, with an ending that isn't formula, but is expected in the best storytelling sense of tightening and sharpening the telling toward a dangerously pointed end.
Tagged in: Notables, fiction,
July 05, 2012 by PatLeach
I'm slightly sheepish in saying that I was happy about "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes because it's just 163 pages. As I work my way through this year's Notable Books list, a shorty is a relief.
Barnes is a British writer, and here presents a British story. It's told by a middle-aged man, Tony Webster, who looks back on his boarding school friendships and early love life.
Tony describes how his school group of three boys grows to take in a fourth, Adrian, who is especially smart and who sees the world a little differently than the others. When Adrian takes up with Veronica, a girl who Tony dated, Tony writes them an ugly letter.Tony heads off for an adventure in America, Adrian commits suicide. Eventually Tony marries Margaret, they raise a daughter, and then divorce. Tony feels himself going along and getting along. Then Veronica's mother dies, and leaves something to Tony, and this brings back the past. It also brings Veronica back into his life.
Tony wonders what his role was in Adrian's suicide, in the unhappiness that led to his death. HAD he done something terribly wrong as a youth? Was he responsible for...something?
I confess that when I got to the end of this book and to the revelation regarding this mystery, I had to re-read the ending, and I wished that I had the gumption to re-read the whole book. I went to amazon.com to read what people had written about the book, and was relieved that several had noted that the resolution seemed confusing and underwhelming, given the lead-up.
And that may be what is genius about this book--how remarkably realistic for Tony to look back from the distance of many years, and end up not quite sure.
And is that what makes Peter Barnes a genius writer? That he can get us inside of this man's head, for good and for ill, and engage us in these reflections? Barnes is known for elegant writing, directing the reader's attention to the correct place, using just the right word, and yet also shining a glaring light on people's weakness. I'll recommend this to my reading friends who are good with a literary novel, good with what is not expected, and good with Barnes' particular "sense of an ending."
Tagged in: fiction, Notables, Julian Barnes,
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