October Mini-Reviews

october

Dutton, September 2014

Ken Follett provided one of the high points in October with the release of the final installment in The Century Trilogy. Edge of Eternity brings the series to an end at a happy moment in the history of this century—which was a welcome relief from the dystopian fiction that covers the literary landscape these days.

The novel spans the decades from 1961 to 1989—some of the most tumultuous years in modern history. Follett follows what are the grandchildren and children of the first novel in the series as they make their way through the civil rights movement in the U.S., the Vietnam War, the assassinations of men who hoped to bring change to this country, the building of the Berlin Wall, and machination of Communism. It is a testament to Follett’s sure hand and vision that the novel ends on a high note for the world, which is a stark contrast to the increasing depression felt by many about the world today. Edge of Eternity covers the highs and lows of the biggest events of these decades and yet, does so from the perspective of the people—not just those making the decisions but more importantly, those impacted by them. A fantastic end to a fantastic trilogy. If you haven’t read any of the books I say give yourself an early Christmas present (and a great way to spend the cold, dreary days of winter) and start with book 1. If that feels like too much, all three of the books stand-alone so pick a time period and go for it! Highly recommended.


october

Over and over again, I wanted to rob you of yourself…Even if what was left was nothing more than an empty shell. 

It’s been awhile since I’ve read any contemporary Japanese fiction and after reading Last Winter We Parted by Fuminori Nakamura I remember why:  it is not a genre I enjoy. By the end of the first chapter I was filled with a sense of unease, which is not too surprising as the novel is about a reporter writing a book about a murderer on death row. Almost immediately, the polite, normal surface of society is peeled away to reveal the filth underneath. This makes for hard reading and left me feeling as if I was covered in a layer of ash.

Last Winter We Parted is relentless in its dismal outlook on the human psyche. It’s not enough that the killer is a sociopath but every character in the novel has a dark side and only a dark side. This may be a function of Japanese noir fiction and, if so, Nakamura is a master of the genre. Without increasing violence and gore he goes to a place of pitch darkness and depravity which, by its volume, comes off as overdone and unbelievable. People simply cannot be this unremittingly evil, without a single redeeming quality.

For lovers of noir fiction this may be right in their wheelhouse because it is at its heart a mystery and one that is quite elaborate.  For me I can only wonder at the mindset that leads to such mental desolation—a landscape of twisted souls all trying to fulfill their perverse desires while presenting a normal façade. Whatever it is, I don’t need to know.


October

Random House, 2013

Let me start by saying I am SO late to the party on this book. Virtually every reader I know has read it and raved and it took me over a year to pick it up. I’m talking about George Saunders’ book of short stories, Tenth of December. Simply put, I loved it and am depressed it took me this long to discover such a quirky, imaginative author. There are ten stories in the book and each one is a perfect gem that explores the foibles of human nature in ways that flay with humor. In “Victory Lap” there is the over-protected Kyle, a teenager whose parents have exerted such control over his life that he finds himself paralyzed about leaving the house to stop the abduction of a girl who leaves nearby. “Escape from Spiderhead” takes on pharmaceutical companies with a look inside a testing facility where people can feel more or less of almost any emotion with a few drops of the appropriate drug. “Exhortation” brings to life the manager everyone loves to hate with their aphorisms and upbeat business jargon and “The Semplica Girl Diaries’ encapsulates the drive to keep up with the neighbors in all things materialistic.

Saunders writes with such intimacy, making even the most out-there characters plausible. In all their frightening, wacky, tender aspects—they  exist and can be felt. There is a feeling of rescue in Tenth of December—both literal and figurative. In some way, there is a character in each story who is trying to change the game, trying to step out of who and what they are and be different and it is all the more poignant because it doesn’t always happen. Just like in real life.

How was your October reading? As hit or miss as mine? Anything you particularly loved or hated?

 

 

 

Tenth of December: Stories
by George Saunders
Powells.com

Land of Dreams

land of dreams

William Morrow/HarperCollins, October 2014

 

When Ellie Hogan’s sixteen-year-old son leaves his expensive boarding school and heads across the country to Hollywood she wastes no time in asking questions but gets on a train from New York City and follows him. Once in L.A. she decides that rather than punish the boy she’s going to let him have his chance at fame. It’s 1942 and this is Land of Dreams by Kate Kerrigan. Ellie is a well-known Irish painter and Leo is one of her two adopted sons. The other, Tom, joins them in Hollywood with the family’s housekeeper and they settle in while Leo becomes a part of the studio system, pinning all his hopes on getting a contract with Paramount.

Land of Dreams is the final book in Kate Kerrigan’s trilogy of Ellie’s life. I did not read the first two books but didn’t find that to be much of a problem as Kerrigan reiterates the key pieces of Ellie’s past repeatedly. This rehashing of the previous two books slows the story and is frustrating. The Hollywood aspects of the novel create enough drama but Kerrigan adds even more layers as the novel progresses, with a Polish composer who has escaped the Nazis and a new Japanese friend who faces being sent to an internment camp. All of this keeps Land of Dreams lively.

Kerrigan also infuses the novel with a lot of Ellie’s personal journey as she tries to mesh her creative life as an artist with her personal life as a mother and single woman navigating the field of relationships. This is interesting given the perspective of the times and of midlife. But packing so much into one story means that Land of Dreams feels like trying to find something you like in a T.J. Maxx—it is likely to be there but there is so much other stuff to go through that you may not have the patience to find it.

TLC logo

I received a copy of this book compliments of TLC Book Tours. To see what other book bloggers are saying about Land of Dreams you can visit here to see the rest of the tour.

The Book of Strange New Things

book of strange new things

Hogarth, October 28, 2014

 

Pastor Peter Leigh is being given the spiritual chance of a lifetime: he’s been chosen to travel billions of miles to a new planet and bring Christianity to its inhabitants. The planet is called Oasis and is managed by a global corporation, USIC. The Book of Strange New Things, the latest novel from Michel Faber, chronicles Peter’s mission and his attempts to stay connected to his wife Beatrice who has informed him, shortly after his arrival at the new planet, that she is pregnant.

Oasis is an interesting planet in that it is habitable for humans but is different enough from Earth to provide its own challenges. By the time Peter arrives there is a colony of humans in place whose main focus is making the planet more livable for more humans. Once Peter is acclimated he is taken to the settlement where the native population lives. There he finds no hostility or disinterest, but a group so happy to see him that they welcome him with their own version of “Amazing Grace”. They are small and with a human shape but with a head Peter describes as “a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel”. It’s impossible to determine any facial features and whatever they use to talk gives them a limited ability to speak English but Peter is immediately taken in by them and begins his work to build a church.

Faber places the reader into Peter’s surroundings so gently, so carefully that it takes time for us to realize what Peter himself realizes and that is that the base is completely isolated from Earth in every way. There are no current publications discussing world events, no newspapers, and electricity is such a valuable commodity that there is no TV. The only nod to communication is a basic form of email. Everything is bland and each of the personnel has been hand-picked because of very specific skills. The place is so emotionally sterile and carefully controlled that there is no alcohol, no weapons, no security, no relationships—and no one cares. The work of building this new outpost is all that seems to matter. Peter is the only employee who has a relationship back on Earth. With each page Faber builds a sense of disconnection that is eerie.

This gulf shows up on a personal level as Peter and Bea try to navigate their separation through email. Peter learns that life on Earth is failing as Bea’s letters become ever more frantic—climate change, economic collapse in certain countries and martial law in others. And yet he is largely unmoved by this news and continues to write about his new life among the Oasans.

It was true he felt no anger, but he felt disturbingly little of anything else either, aside from stress at his inability to respond. It was difficult, in his current circumstances, to grab hold of feelings and brand them with a name. If he tried his hardest, he could just about make sense of what was happening on Oasis, but that was because he and the events he was grappling with were in the same space. His mind and heart were trapped in his body, and his body was here. 

The Book of Strange New Things (which is what the Oasans call the Bible) moves at this dichotomous pace throughout, growing more confusing as time passes. We read of Bea’s increasing distress at what is happening to her but it is played off against Peter’s dreamy apathy. The colony is established and runs with no help from him. There is no great conflict and he faces none of the challenges that most missionaries face. He’s in no physical danger and if anything, he’s embraced and welcomed. Life on Oasis is very different than it is on planet Earth but it is certainly not filled with the kind of science fiction danger we would expect in a futuristic novel. Instead, all of the danger and drama is taking place back on earth where Beatrice has been left alone, but her story is secondary and the novel’s focus is on Peter who is, in some ways, bored. He is a missionary but has not brought Jesus to this alien population. A previous pastor did and now these benign beings want only to hear about Jesus from the same few Bible stories being told over and over. Bea is the emotional focus of the story but not the narrative.

Faber plays with these conflicting scenarios throughout The Book of Strange New Things. Peter’s purpose on Oasis is unclear and yet, as he learns of the dangers facing his wife, he makes no efforts to go home. He is supposed to be strengthening the Oasans’ Christianity but they do not have the linguistic capabilities to understand much of the Bible or its spiritual meaning. Space is the place of danger but it is earth that is falling apart.  These disparities may be Faber’s intent but they do not come together in a way that resolves the contradictions. The lack of action and emotion left me the same way—a bit apathetic and without strong feelings about the story. The Book of Strange New Things will be read start to finish because Faber is a gifted stylist and the planet Oasis and its people are easy to see in his capable hands but what is being conveyed in the novel is not as clear.

 

This book can be purchased online at:


The Elliott Bay Book Company

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

a girl is a half formed thing

Coffee House Press, September 2014

 

The heart cannot be wrung and wrung.

Eimear McBride brings her main character to life with prose so fractured that A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing reads a bit like Clockwork Orange. There is no made-up language but McBride uses a combination of Magnetic Poetry and Yahtzee to throw out words in random order with punctuation as an afterthought. Abandon any hope for sentence structure or grammar but, if you can simply read the words, there is a harsh poignant story to be found.

There are no names used in A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing but the protagonist is a teenage girl trying to deal with her brother’s brain tumor and his ongoing problems from the surgery that saved his life. He is her dearest companion and she has felt his love since her days in the womb. There is no father and her mother is overwhelmed and sometimes abusive. Her love for this brother burns white hot when she is small but cools as she grows up and moves on to college, while he cannot make a life for himself outside of their mother’s house.

You are behind. You are way behind in this. I see you lagging. I can see you limping off at the back but I’m getting very tired of looking around and in a bit I’ll leave you to the fates.

As his health deteriorates she chooses sexual abuse as her punishment and her body as a sacrifice to a God she doesn’t understand.

This is not a novel for everyone. It is so unique in its construction and technique that its appeal will largely be to those readers who view fiction as art—modern, abstract art. And like that art it requires a great deal of effort to understand. How McBride managed to sustain this narrative for over 200 pages is nothing short of miraculous to me because my reading of the novel left me feeling as if my brain had been scrubbed with a Brillo pad. The prose is that painful, sharp, and devastating. The words don’t flow, there is no order, and at times they read like poetry, but largely they require utter concentration and focus to even follow. It is exhausting, grim and bleak, which is the whole point for this girl. She is trapped in her own mind with no real tools to deal with what is an incredibly difficult situation. What McBride gives us is the uncensored, unfiltered contents of her brain pouring onto the page.

In its way the book is revolutionary. I’ve never read anything formatted or styled like this but it takes as much from the reader as it gives, if not more. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is rife with pain, darkness and confusion but there is no doubt about the clarity of McBride’s voice.

Eimear McBride will be reading from A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing at The Elliott Bay Book Company on Thursday October 23rd as part of Seattle’s annual Lit Crawl.

 

This book can be purchased online at:

The Elliott Bay Book Company

Some Luck: A Novel

some luck

Knopf, October 7, 2014

 

Some Luck is the first book in Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years trilogy and in it she covers the lives of the Langdons. They are an Iowa farming family and it’s evident by the loving care with which she portrays them that Smiley is happy to return to her roots. In 1920 Walter Langdon is twenty-five and the proud owner of his own farm. He and his wife Rosanna live there with their infant son Frank. What begins with their story in Iowa expands to encompass events and places throughout America and the world. Smiley breaks the novel’s chapters into years and in doing so links the family chain from one generation to the next until 1953.

Rosanna and Walter go on to have four more children after Frank but he is the novel’s cornerstone and the other characters flit by and around him. It is his psychological make-up that gets the greatest attention from Smiley and we quickly learn that his intelligence is equaled by a ferocious will to to do what he wants.

Frank was patient. Nobody thought he was patient…But he had stores of patience they could not understand if there was something he really, really wanted to do. 

This leads to his going to a high school in Chicago, being the first in the family to go to college, and then quitting halfway through to join the Army. While his choices puzzle his family they make perfect sense to him. In his own way, he is as unknowable and uncontrollable as the land—the other key character in Some Luck. For while people are critical to the novel, Smiley always returns to the land.

Some Luck moves with a stately grace that may feel slow or dispassionate to some readers but I found it reflective of the people and their land and appreciated its natural pace. Much of Smiley’s prose in Some Luck is about the smallest things—the paragraphs of Frank’s impressions of the world when only five months old are some of my favorite of the novel. It is this mindset that reinforces how small but concentrated life is on a farm and how well Smiley represents that life. There is no energy or time to be wasted in talking so Some Luck is a very thoughtful novel—literally.  There are no deep, emotional conversations being had but there is no doubt about the depths being felt. The intimacy is in the actions—the joy of plentiful harvests, eating what you’ve grown, giving birth to and raising children, and the grief of the Depression, when farms were left behind because they had been lost. Smiley covers all these and more quietly but beautifully, leaving me looking forward to what happens next.

 

This book can be purchased online at:

Some Luck
by Jane Smiley
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

At Home with Madame Chic

madame chic

Simon & Schuster, October 7, 2014

 

I read Jennifer Scott’s first book Lessons from Madame Chic and loved her take on the way French women approach beauty and fashion. So much so that I’ve tried to emulate her credo that you only need a ten-piece wardrobe. Granted, I’m doing it because the majority of my clothes are packed in boxes while we are stuck in a small rental house but still…I tried. Fashion aside, Scott is back with At Home with Madame Chic, her take on the French way of life at home. In the book, Scott covers housekeeping and then breaks things down further into every day life and how to keep it chic.

Much of the gracefulness of At Home with Madame Chic comes from a difference in mindset often found between Americans and their French counterparts. For most of us, the house is something to be maintained and we do it with chores. Scott offers numerous ways to derive pleasure from everyday activities around the house—which is not to say she thinks every day should be spent cleaning and maintaining a home. Instead, she provides options for organizing the time needed to keep a house clean and even provides play lists and quick tips to make the time more enjoyable.

What makes the Madame Chic books so readable is that Scott keeps a lighthearted tone throughout. Despite the ‘chic’ label her books are not filled with mandates to distill your own lavender linen spray to use when you iron the sheets nor does she scold if you hit an afternoon slump. Instead, Scott offers help for women in all kinds of situations: apartment or home living, working or stay-at-home mothers, office commute or work-from-home. At Home with Madame Chic is about gracious living in a thoughtful way  and who doesn’t appreciate that?

If you’d like to learn more about living chic you can visit Jennifer at her blog The Daily Connoisseur. You can also see her Tedx Talk about the 10 item wardrobe here.

This book can be purchased online at:

Gretel and the Dark

gretel

Riverhead Books, October 14, 2014

 

Unless you’re reading a book of short stories it is unusual to get more than one scary plot in a single novel, but that is exactly what happens in Eliza Granville’s debut novel Gretel and the Dark. There is Lilie, the beautiful young patient of Dr. Josef Breuer, Sigmund Freud’s mentor.  She is found beaten, abused and with her head shaved. She only speaks when ordered and claims she is not a human but is a machine created to kill a “monster”. Krysta is a little girl of school age but she does not attend school. Instead she and her father have moved to a new home after her mother’s suicide. There Krysta is coddled by her father, a doctor who she thinks works in a “zoo” filled not with animals but with “people-animals”. Krysta is never allowed to go there but spends her days willfully misbehaving and generally acting like an unhinged person when she doesn’t get her way.

Lilie’s story is set in 1899 Vienna and Krysta’s in the 1940s at Ravensbrück, a German concentration camp for women and children. Both of their stories unfold in a way surreal and all-too-real. Breuer, in his efforts to help Lilie tries to get her to talk about her past but her replies are either cryptic or nonsensical—telling him he must help her to save “your beloved descendants’ from terrible misfortune” and that butterflies are flowers. Krysta thinks everything she sees (including all that she is not supposed to see) is a fairytale. This is due in part to her closest companion being the housekeeper who tells her the most gruesome of Grimm’s fairytales—only those that involve children being hunted, killed, eaten, tortured—in an effort to make her behave and do as she is told.  When her father is found dead there are no relatives to take Krysta and her family’s lineage comes to light, meaning that she now joins the people-animals.

Initially, there seems to be no relationship between the lives of Lilie and Krysta but as their stories unfold events, names and places tug at the reader’s mind as being familiar. Granville goes even further by mixing the very real worlds of 1890s Vienna, psychoanalysis, and the Holocaust with Grimm’s fairytales, making the novel one that grips and shakes the reader from beginning to end. The astonishing amount of detail in Gretel and the Dark can mean that without being well-versed on one of the subjects the full impact of various scenes is lost. This is a small price to pay for a novel that overflows with mystery and emotion in a way that upends all preconceived notions and perceptions. Like so many fairytales nothing is what it seems and attention must be paid for the greatest rewards.

 

This book can be purchased online at:

Gretel and the Dark
by Eliza Granville
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

Leaving Time

leaving time

Ballantine Books, available October 14, 2014

 

It’s no small feat, finishing a journey…But no one ever mentions that once you get there, you still have to turn around and head all the way home. 

Jenna Metcalf is fourteen years old and has only one goal in life: find her mother. When she was four and living with her parents on an elephant sanctuary an employee was murdered and her mother was injured and later disappeared from the hospital. Her father had a complete mental breakdown and lives in an institution while Jenna’s grandmother raises her. In Leaving Time Jodi Picoult applies her powerful storytelling skills to the lives of Jenna, her mother Alice, and the two people Jenna gets to help her—a psychic named Serenity, whose career imploded, and Virgil, a former police detective who is now a private investigator.

I have not read a lot of Picoult but know that her novels often echo recent events about legal issues or complex human situations. Leaving Time does not fall neatly into either category but, on a deeper level, explores a number of disparate themes. There is Alice, an elephant researcher whose journals provide an insightful look at the psychological and emotional qualities of elephants, particularly how they deal with grief. These copious notes are all Jenna has left of her mother. Picoult blends this with Alice’s own life and the events that led to her injury and disappearance. The rest of the narrative is split between Serenity, Virgil, and Jenna and how they come together. For both Serenity and Virgil there is a redemptive quality to their efforts as both have failed in their professional endeavors. These are four very unique characters and yet, Picoult instills them with voices that ring true. This makes reading Leaving Time an imaginative exercise in that, like a great movie, you can hear and see the characters as they interact and the story unfolds.

The allure of Picoult is how thoroughly she leads the reader. There are great novels out there that require a lot of thought to puzzle them through. With Picoult all the work is done and there is nothing left for the reader but to sit back and trust that the loose ends, odd scenes, and unanswered questions will be taken care of. Absolutely, down to the last period. This doesn’t mean that Leaving Time is dumbed down. Not at all. It simply means that as you read you must abandon the urge to question or go back in your reading, because Picoult is a captain of such strength that she is piloting you exactly where you need to be. And if you can just relax and enjoy the brilliance with which she navigates a complicated story you will get the bang-up surprise of your life when she brings it all home.

 

This book can be purchased online at:

Leaving Time
by Jodi Picoult
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

Rooms: A Novel

rooms

Ecco, September 2014

 

People, Caroline thought, were like houses. They could open their doors. You could walk through their rooms and touch the objects hidden in their corners. But something—the structure, the wiring, the invisible mechanism that kept the whole thing standing—remained invisible, suggested only by the fact of its existing at all. 

Richard Walker has died and the country house where he lived now fills up with his ex-wife Caroline and his two children, Minna and Trenton. What they do not know is that throughout their lives and before, the house has also been occupied by two ghosts, Sandra and Alice. They all converge in Lauren Oliver’s Rooms. Unlike the ghosts, Richard’s family manifests itself quickly. Caroline is an alcoholic who starts drinking in the morning but doesn’t truly fall apart until nightfall. Minna is a beautiful but angry young woman with a six-year-old daughter and enough phobias to fill one of the rooms in the house. Trenton was the surprise baby, and is now an awkward teenager who thinks about suicide. All of them were estranged from Richard and now find themselves gathered in a house filled with memories that go far beyond their own.

Sandra and Alice have an equally strong presence in Rooms in that they are interwoven into the structure of the house itself. It is not just their past that keeps them in this world; it is the house as well and they can feel it—whether it is being crowded or even pain when a wall is kicked or a door slammed. Oliver also uses this premise of space in their relationship. They were foisted onto each other by having died in the same house so there is no bond and they bicker and complain as any two strangers would who were captive in one place for decades. The brash and volatile Sandra claims to want honesty but for the quiet and proper Alice

These are my secrets: roads branching, endlessly branching, each leading to a hundred others. When Sandra first came, I was tempted to share, to explain. But now I know: certain stories must remain mine, so that there is a me to remain.

The wisdom of time only allows Sandra and Alice to understand the Walkers as they muddle through the aftereffects of Richard’s death but does not make their own secrets any less onerous.

Oliver separates Rooms into the spaces of a house, with large rooms that hold happiness and those so small that hurt bounces off the walls with nowhere to go. As we pass through them we learn more about the people who lived there and that in some way each is holding onto something they need to release in order to move forward. Oliver handles all of this complexity with a grace that gives the novel a feeling of lightness even at its darkest moments and makes it so much more than a ghost story.

 

This book can be purchased online at:

Rooms
by Lauren Oliver
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Company

Dept. of Speculation

dept of speculation

Vintage, pbk release October 2014

 

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill is a tiny slip of a novel, small in size, only 156 pages long, and yet it chronicles a young woman’s life with as much intimacy as novels of greater length. Somehow, Offill uses words to their maximum advantage in a minimum of space. The narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the novel, recounts her life from her days as a single woman to meeting her husband, having their child and finally, to learning of his infidelity. And that is how it goes: One day they are joined in the endorphin high of looking at their new child’s face and the next he has met someone “easier”.

The story is told in numerous chapters composed of little paragraphs of trivia, single sentences, stream-of-consciousness thoughts, and obscure facts about space from the narrator’s job as a ghost writer for a wealthy former astronaut. Offill’s writing is a combination of Erma Bombeck’s sly wit and Nora Ephron’s eyes-wide-open reality, stirring humor into the sadness. She shares the minutia of everyday life with all its attendant fears in a mashup of tenses—moving from ‘I’ to ‘she’ and back in a way that should stop the reader’s mind and yet, only heightens the feeling that while very little is going on, everything is happening. It is the slow erosion that comes after years of rain, when what seemed strong is no longer. For the narrator, her identity is mutating into something she does not recognize:

How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be. 

The narrator may be feeling the loss of her creativity as life tosses her around but Offill has no such problems. She mixes astute human observations with bits and bobs of unrelated topics in a way that could be confusing but is, instead, deeply relatable. In Dept. of Speculation we know this woman and, in some ways, are this woman. We have all been there and as she ruminates and reminisces, quips and jabs, we want to give her a hug, some words of wisdom and share a martini. In that order.

This book is available for purchase online at:

Dept. of Speculation
by Jenny Offill
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

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