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The Scapegoat is one of the purchases I made with my job leaving gift card. My book club ended up choosing it for our next read, and I am so glad, because I for one really enjoyed it. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Du Maurier except Rebecca, which my grandmother gave me one summer when I was visiting her and I remember loving. I wish she was still with us so I could ask her if she’s read The Scapegoat.

The story is simple, and I realized many other authors have used this situation, including recently, Antoine Laurain in The PortraitUnlike in that novel, where the protagonist finds his exact image in a painting, in The Scapegoat an English professor of French history who is nearing the end of a holiday in France in the 1950s meets a man who could be his exact double in a bar. The first man, John, is having something of an existential crisis, leads a very solitary life, and is on his way to a monastery where he hopes to figure out what to do with his life. His French opposite, Jean, a Count with many responsibilities and a tangled family and personal life, wants to escape all that.

Unlike in The Portrait, where I didn’t really care for the man who went to live another man’s life, this time I felt great empathy for John. First of all, he doesn’t choose — Jean foists the switch on him. Secondly, John very quickly develops true feeling for Jean’s damaged and dysfunctional family and in his own way tries to be kind and helpful, despite the extremity of his own situation. It’s not that he doesn’t cause any harm, but that he is trying not to, that endeared him to me.

The book’s surprising (to me, anyway) ending left me wondering what in the world would happen to Jean’s family, especially his young daughter. And to John. Du Maurier’s writing is just the kind my grandmother loved — every word serves the book, powerfully. The descriptions of John’s discomfort as he fumbles his way through another man’s life, and the observations he makes, are packed with insight. Consider this passage, as he talks with “his” mother, and she takes his hands in hers: “Her hands neither gave confidence nor sapped it: they turned the assurance I had to a different plane. The faith she had in her son was so intense that even if she did not know his secrets, or share more than a small part of his life, it was as though he remained with her, bound and sightless as he had been before birth, and she would never loose him.”

There is so much to discuss in this book: the nature of being a human in relationship with others; the choices the characters make; the way WWII impacted every person, whether they fought or not, in France; the way our concerns with meaning and purpose in life are bound up with the people we are connected with; the fact that some people carry with them a strong desire to do what’s right for others and others, only a strong desire to do what’s right for themselves.

I’m grateful that Simon of The Readers and Savidge Reads is a Du Maurier fan and brought her back into my reading life! I intend to hunt down more of her work.

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I read Ali Smith’s first  book in her planned “season” quartet, Autumn, last December, and loved it. Like that novel, Winter is set soon after the Brexit vote and is the story of two generations — one struggling with the implications of adulthood in the Brexit/Trump presidency world, and one that came before. Smith has plenty to critique about now, but doesn’t idealize the past, either. And as in Autumn, the world we live in plays a huge role, with art and nature both serving to bring people together and feed our souls, and sociopolitical issues hanging over the characters’ heads — in Winter, sometimes literally in the artistic hallucinations two of the characters experience.

Winter’s protagonists are mostly difficult folks; Art, whose life and work is steeped in the alternate reality of the Internet; his aging mother, Sophia, who lives in a house she owns in part out of spite, and that she’s letting go; Iris, Sophia’s elder sister who in Sophia’s eyes has always selfishly, foolishly, follower her ideals, ignoring her family in the process; and Lux, a student from Croatia whose funds have run out, who Art hires to pretend to be his girlfriend Charlotte because Charlotte has left him just before Christmas. Lux is the most likable, not only because her fate is at the mercy of populist nationalism and contemporary capitalism, both greedy “I’ve got mine” movements, but also because she manages to get Sophia and Iris to really talk with each other, she gets Sophia to eat, and she helps Art see the actual world he’s been oblivious to (or hiding from?) with his online work.

As in Autumn, Smith manages to shine a light on much of what is absurd about contemporary society: Art works for a bot, and writes a blog called “Art in Nature” that is mostly made up; the library is now “The Ideas Store” and is mainly a small public space (in an otherwise privatized building of luxury flats) where people wait to use computers; when Art’s awareness is awakened he is horrified to hear about people paying to fund boats that stop other boats from rescuing refugees at sea; the Grenfell Tower disaster happening in one of the wealthiest cities in the world; Trump’s actual speech to the Boyscouts in summer 2017. But she also allows for past absurdities that were different because they were less selfish — like women who chained themselves to a missile site in Britain, art that playfully exposes human foibles, from Shakespeare and Dickens to Barbara Hepworth.

In other words, this is a very political book but it is still fun, and somehow Smith doesn’t even leave readers feeling too pessimistic. Even as Smith draws attention to history’s ill effects (She alludes to the long lasting impacts of WWI & WWII on the British psyche, as well as the Cold War), she shows people surviving, adapting. If self-absorbed Art and his dysfunctional mother and sister can get along, so can we. If people like Lux still believe in the benefits of beauty when so much is taken from them, well, shouldn’t we?

Art, looking for Lux ,when he can’t find her actual person, in the things they learned about each other by spending Christmas at his mother’s, visits the British Library asking about a Shakespearean manuscript with the residue of a flower pressed in it. He tells the librarian that Cymbeline is “about poison, mess, bitterness, then the balance coming back. The lies revealed. The losses compensated.” Winter too seems to be about those very things.

There is so much more to enjoy, including the love story that resulted in Art, and the writing style — similar to Autumn, but not exactly the same– that infuses the book with a dreamy quality, and also a sort of art film sense of scenes more thematically than narratively linked. Despite the unconventional narrative and chronology, I was never lost.  I find myself wanting to discuss this book with someone, so if you’re in a book club, this may be a good choice for you.

Summer may be approaching, but trust me, you should treat yourself to Winter. My only regret is that I didn’t get to read it in one go like I did Autumn. 

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When I was visiting family last week I was in danger of running out of reading material on my iPad (Quick aside: traveling is usually the only time I choose e-reading, and from my informal survey of fellow passengers, that’s pretty common. As I have frequently discussed over at Nocturnal Librarian, the book was not a technology that needed improvement, and e-books are kinda meh to many, many people). I checked for something else to download and found that Overdrive had it’s Big Library Read going on.  So I downloaded their selection, Flat Broke With Two Goats by Jennifer McGaha.

I am not always a memoir fan — I read bad news in the news, so I am not really interested in bad news in my books, too. This one has plenty, from McGaha’s youthful abusive (and thankfully, brief) marriage to the foreclosure that is the main catalyst for the story. But I finished it, and I found it readable and interesting.

It’s always good when a book challenges assumptions. I thought I had a fairly good understanding of the basics of the economic downturn and foreclosure crisis. And I feel for people who lost their homes, especially those preyed upon by the kinds of mortgage brokers and banks depicted in The Big Short. But I found myself feeling a little sheepish as I read about McGaha’s accountant husband, David, to paying taxes for a few years and getting them so far in debt they had to foreclose and work out payments for state and federal tax. I was shaking my head, thinking, “How could an accountant let that happen?” But McGaha writes honestly about how he intended to make everything work, they never expected their troubles to compound, and she trusted him to manage it all so didn’t pay attention.

In fact, her story, one of raising her kids, working part time, and trusting her spouse with the money hit a little close to home. I could definitely get where she was coming from. I could see how it could happen — good people, scrambling to make all the ends meet, stuck in a house that they bought from friends that had a number of major things wrong with it, trusting all the way around.

So, when they lost their house, they end up living in a cabin in the woods near a waterfall, not fall from Asheville, which I visited with my mom a couple of years ago. McGaha describes the woods and the falls, the cabin (pretty rustic for a house), the awful creepy things (snakes, spiders) and the wonderful animals they raise. Yes, goats. Also chickens and dogs and a cat, all in vivid detail. Again some of it will raise your eyebrows, but McGaha is so forthright about their situation, readers end up feeling for her.

My favorite sections were when she was more introspective about how she handled her radically new life emotionally, how she grieved her grandparents, especially her grandmother, and what she felt about her career, the land, and her family history. More of that would have been enjoyable. There are a number of recipes at the ends of chapters, but I felt like maybe an editor suggested those? Maybe not. They seemed a little forced into the narrative, and that’s a trend from a few years ago (tacking recipes onto chapters in memoirs) that seemed to me like publishers grasping at how to compete with blogs or something.

I learned a great deal about goat farming, and humanity, and expanded my view of the world. Not a bad “spare” read while traveling.

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Two people told me about this book recently, one who loved it and one who did not even like it. I decided to give it a try, and I’m glad I did. I think it is an important story, one that touches on important issues in our culture and also tells a compelling story. It’s heart-wrenching, but there is also a redemptive piece that makes it more lovely than sad.  wouldn’t say it’s a hopeful book, however, given the realities of our country.

Sing Unburied Sing is set in coastal Mississippi, and it’s the story of JoJo, a thirteen year old boy who lives with his mother Leonie (although she isn’t always there) and her parents, Pop and Mam, as well as his toddler sister, Kayla. His father, Michael, is in a prison called Parchman, the same prison where Pop was sent as a young man, back when Jim Crow still ran the South. Pop tells JoJo stories about his time at Parchman, and they all feature a boy around JoJo’s age, Richie, who was a prisoner with Pop.

Michael is white, and his parents, especially his father, think of Leonie as a “nigger bitch.” They have nothing to do with her or their grandchildren. Pop and Mam are poor, but Pop grows a garden and tends animals and keeps his family well fed. Mam has been a healer all her life, making herbal remedies and praying to a mixture of Catholic and Voodoo saints. Mostly, they provide the children love and a kind of stability.

The book follows these characters through a period of just a few tumultuous days, as Michael is released from prison, Leonie takes the children and her friend Misty to go pick him up, and Mam’s cancer reaches a critical stage. But even though the action only takes up a short time, we learn a tremendous amount about the characters. How Given, Leonie’s older brother, and Richie, the boy Pop knew at Parchman haunt them. How Leonie and JoJo each deal with those hauntings. How addiction and mass incarceration and systemic racism and the long shadow of lynchings and police brutality and more everyday violence and the hard work of being poor impact them all, deeply, generationally, indelibly.

The hauntings and the faith in VooDoo comforts like a gris-gris bag Pop gives JoJo and the stones Mam asks Leonie to gather from the cemetery as her life withers away make this book more than a straight up narrative; there is a sense of mysticism to it. Somehow Ward makes the characters seem both concrete and symbolic, people with real lives and also people who represent millions of lives, millions of souls touched by the myriad harms of being poor and black in America.

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A friend whose reading tastes I trust went out of her way earlier this fall to tell me she had a book recommendation for me: The River Why. I had not heard of the book nor its author, David James Duncan, but now that I’ve read it I’m filled with the usual sense I have after “discovering” an author whose writing I admire: regret that it’s taken me this long to find their work and anticipation as I consider reading everything else they’ve written.

It’s hard to say what this novel is about. I was trying to explain it to coworkers when I was less than halfway through and said it was a character driven coming of age novel that is also about fishing, but not really just about fishing but about becoming so adept at something that it becomes not a pastime but a part of your being. Now that I’ve finished I’d add that it’s about being a son, a brother, and a friend. It’s about yearning for solitude but needing community. It’s about getting so focused on something — in the protagonist, Gus’s case, water and fish — that you miss the bigger picture until someone wiser — Gus’s brother, Bill Bob — reveals what’s been right in front of you all along. It’s about realizing there is something yearning in you for something that yearns back towards you, and figuring out those are your soul and what Gus comes to think of as “the Friend.” And it’s about love.

Gus is the child of a snobbish fly fishing legend and and a down to earth bait fisher and as he gets older he grows impatient with both. After a meltdown that results in the destruction of a treasured family trophy, Gus moves out of the family home in Portland, Oregon, renting a cabin to go and live out his dream of fishing more hours than he sleeps. It doesn’t take long for him to realize he’s been deluded by his own ambitions and that the life he thought he wanted to lead isn’t what he really wants. He hikes with his much younger brother Bill Bob, who shows him that the Tamanawis river near his home is shaped like the word “Why” when viewed from above. Then he encounters two very different mysterious strangers (that’s all I’ll say, so as not to reveal too much) one of whom leads him to meet Titus, a friend who initiates him into a world of ideas. He also meets neighbors, and as he examines his own way of being he learns from theirs.

I’m not really doing the book justice. It’s strange — especially if you have no idea, as I didn’t, about fishing.  It’s mysterious and funny, full of wonders like a garbage swilling fish, a singing mouse, and dog who likes rocking in his master’s chair and drinking teat. There are touches of native American, Eastern, and Western mythology, philosophy and religion, bits of poetry, and copious quotations from The Compleat Angler, a fishing tome from the 1600s. It’s about growing up and growing into yourself and yes, it’s about finding God. If you are looking for some substance and wisdom in your fiction, The River Why is for you.

 

 

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I read Moonglow for my book group this month and was excited to do so, because Michael Chabon is one of those authors I always meant to read and hadn’t yet. I enjoyed it — the writing is really rich and muscular and evocative. I like the layers of detail. The story — which some reviewers call genre bending fictional memoir and others say is just a novel with a protagonist named Michael Chabon — was hard to follow. If you don’t like non-linear narratives, time leaps, footnotes, and other prose calisthenics you might not like it. I did, eventually, but because I have less time to read these days I found it challenging to pick up in my patchy reading time.

Those minor quibbles aside I did enjoy the main character, “my grandfather,” and the historical backdrop of his life, growing up in pre-war Philadelphia, putting his low regard for rules and his uncanny ability to jerry-rig or repair anything to use during WWII in a unit devoted to finding V2 rockets after D-Day, uncovering a cache of documents hidden by Wernher von Braun, and going back to America to lead a colorful life on the periphery of America’s space race. I don’t want to give away the details but his marriage to the narrator’s grandmother is the real meat of the story, and the way that his grandfather sees loving her as his purpose: “From the first that was a part of his attraction to her: not her brokenness but her potential for being mended and, even more, the challenge that mending her would pose. He thought that if he took on the job of loving this broken woman, some measure of sense or purpose might be returned to his life.”

This pattern begins in the grandfather’s childhood — he’s always helping someone who is kind of a mess, in one way or another, and I found that very endearing even though he’s not a classically endearing guy at all. I also enjoyed reading about the narrator’s mother and would have liked to hear more of her life. My bookclub mostly didn’t like or finish the book — one person had read it twice but otherwise, no one who came to the meeting tonight had finished. I’m glad I read to the end. There is a gentleness to the latter pages of the book that I enjoyed. Moonglow is a wacky novel, for sure, replete with some strange twists that don’t quite make sense unless you’re willing to just suspend belief and go with the narrative flow, disjointed as it may be. If you feel like something different, give it a try. Maybe take it on a weekend away or a long plane ride, so you don’t have time to get lost.

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The adult formerly known on this blog as Teen the Younger (who will no longer be a teen later this month) suggested we get Furiously Happy: a Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson and both read it. As you can imagine I can’t pass up a suggestion like that even though I have stacks of books waiting for me around here.

As I was reading it I posted on Facebook that the most important takeaway is that people living with depression and/ or anxiety have brains that are lying to them. That resonated with me – honestly there is not a damn thing their loved ones can say when that is happening. The lies are too loud. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell the person you love them and are with the them, you just can’t expect it to make any difference in the moment. That is both disturbing and reassuring.

I still feel that is the most important takeaway. Which makes me glad I read Furiously Happy even though I don’t think it’s necessarily my kind of humor or a topic I want to spend any more head space on than I already do. But it helped put words to some things I’ve been thinking about.

Last week I saw a story on Facebook that had been published in our local paper, about the parents of a recent suicide victim, and about how he was upset about a breakup but otherwise they had no idea and how he’d been talking about things he looked forward to doing and then killed himself. The article and the post both mentioned wanting to help prevent other families from going through this and other people from committing suicide. I get that desire. I really, really do.

But I think assuming that prevention is a matter of just saying the right thing is a lie, too, that people not living with mental illness but near it tell themselves. And it’s just as dangerous as the lies Lawson writes about. We can help people with mental illness know they are not alone. We can help them see there are options in the world, but we can’t help them see themselves in those options — yes, therapy can often give people tools to try to see, and medicine can potentially help thwart some of the lies enough to help therapy work, but ultimately, no one can stop someone else’s brain from lying. I think, and maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me, they can only be a steady presence for the person with mental illness, when their brains are lying or when they are not, and hope the person says they need help shutting out the lies when they get too loud.

In that way Furiously Happy isn’t totally bleak, because Lawson gives people a view into what that’s like, and provides hope for people who read her work thinking they alone feel as horrible as they do. Letting people see her life, Lawson says, led to affirmations that people were with her in her struggle, but also to  “thousands and thousands of people creeping to the edge and quietly admitting, “Me too. I thought it was just me.” It’s something we humans are very good at, especially at this time and place — we have the delusional view that our experience is unique, especially if it’s bad. Lawson helps people through her blog and her books see that other people are suffering but are also living. That’s great. But I think about that young man and his parents in my town, and I am sure, based on the story they told in the paper, that they did that too — let him know he was not alone, and that people had suffered and lived through what he was experiencing. The lies in his brain were too loud, too insistent for him.

And that’s what I hope science will figure out someday — how to keep the brain from ever lying so badly in the first place.

 

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