A lovely period piece, this books deals with the consequences of the decisions we make, from those that cause countries to send their young to fight a...moreA lovely period piece, this books deals with the consequences of the decisions we make, from those that cause countries to send their young to fight and die in wars to the decisions the battered survivors must often make afterwards. Specifically, the action takes place just after the first World War in a tiny town in Australia whose population has been affected by the far-away battles. The author has managed to create a painful yet heartfelt story of people at their wits' end who try to do the right thing even when it costs them the earth. It's descriptive, evocative and, in the end, an exquisite love story. Highly recommended.(less)
I'd heard of Louise Penny and I enjoy a good mystery but although I went to school in Quebec, I was unfamiliar with her Inspector Gamache series. It's...moreI'd heard of Louise Penny and I enjoy a good mystery but although I went to school in Quebec, I was unfamiliar with her Inspector Gamache series. It's a good story but what attracted me all the way through was the evocative nature of the descriptions and the lyrical quality of the prose. The characters are thoroughly revealed in all their faulty humanity. There's more than a touch of Gaelic despair mixed in with the Canadian independence. It's also a solid thriller, a tale of greed and corruption that reached back through the years and up through the highest echelons of power. Better yet. It's two tales, told side by side and interwoven with the history and politics of Quebec. Bien fait!(less)
I know I've been seduced by a book when I dig around for information on the author, in this case, Helene Weckler. I undertook the same investigation a...moreI know I've been seduced by a book when I dig around for information on the author, in this case, Helene Weckler. I undertook the same investigation after reading "The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern. I want to know how these first-time authors work, how they think and how in the world they have come to produce such fertile, imaginative works. The comparison with "The Night Circus" is not random, by the way; like that narrative, Ms. Weckler places her fantasy in the churning restlessness of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when strivers moved from the country to the city or from Europe to America in droves and everyone seemed to believe in possibility, including the possibility of magic.
Other reviews have shared elements of the plot line. Let me just add that what bowled me over was Ms. Weckler's prodigious storytelling skills combined with an impressive understanding of Jewish mysticism and Middle East folklore. Moreover, the book poses some fundamental questions about humanity and existence. Neither the Golem nor the Jinni could be considered human, yet they are possessed of such spirit, intelligence, curiosity and, dare I say it, heart, that it begs the question: what does it mean to be human, or rather, to be alive and aware of the range of human emotions and expressions of wonder, fear and yes, love? Because while this is both a smart literary novel and a fantastical one, it is, in the end, a love story.(less)
(originally published on Punchnel's) Like nearly every person between the ages of eight and eighteen and a fair number of the over thirty set, I fell...more(originally published on Punchnel's) Like nearly every person between the ages of eight and eighteen and a fair number of the over thirty set, I fell hard for the Harry Potter franchise. Of course by the time that decade-long ride had ended, the books’ creator, J.K. Rowling, was an exceedingly wealthy woman who had single-handedly redefined young adult fiction, revived a large portion of the book-selling business and resurrected the reputation of formerly small and staid Scholastic Publishing House.
By that time too, I had begun my own much less fortuitous journey as a writer. As such, I paid attention to other writers, not to their back stories—and Rowling’s was a doozy; a single mother trying to make ends meet, she began conceiving her blockbuster series on the backs of napkins she used at the local coffee shop—but to their craft. It was obvious to me as well as to her legions of fans that Ms. Rowling was not only a master story-teller, she was also a shrewd observer, creating characters with fantastical abilities but also distinctly human impulses. Moreover, though not yet the mother of a tween or teen, she knew how to think like one. Most of the adults who took to the Harry Potter tales probably felt as if they had a hand in raising him.
It was with some trepidation, however, that I approached her first post-Potter outing, an adult book named The Casual Vacancy. I was concerned it might prove a touch too twee; expounding on the petty politics and small-minded gossip in a manner that both mocked and paid homage to small-town English life. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just not my cup of tea.
Rowling’s setting is indeed the fictional small town of Pagford, located at some distance from London, but her approach reminds me of the very American chronicler of soul-crushing suburbia, John Cheever. The characters are provincial, hypocritical and mostly unlikeable, except for one whose shocking death in the first pages of the book sets in motion a series of catastrophic comeuppances.
The ghost of the saint-like and dearly departed Barry Fairbrother hovers over the book; he appears to have been both the glue that connected unlikely allies and the thumb in the dyke that held back the flood of half-truths and secrets that threaten the town. Barry’s death creates a vacancy on the all-important town council, a vacancy that his nemesis and the council leader Howard Mollison, wants filled by his son. Mollison’s contingent is trying to distance Pagford from an association with a local housing project, its residents and an addiction clinic that had been serving a fair number of them. Fairbrother and his supporters—the talented but brittle Indian doctor Parminder Jawanda and an obsessively guilt-ridden assistant headmaster named Colin Wall—were in various ways supporting the project inhabitants. Barry’s death serves not only to propel the story but also to introduce the reader to the various characters via their reactions.
Teens play a central role in the story, both as smartly realized individuals and as catalysts for much of the important action. There is nothing inhibited or sugar-coated about these kids who engage routinely in smoking, snogging, shagging and skipping school whenever possible. Rowling’s town seems over-populated by disaffected kids, or rather; she spends more time on them than with the well-behaved progeny of Barry Fairbrother. While I began to be overwhelmed with their problems and, in at least one instance, with a young man’s sociopathic tendencies, I sympathized. Given the kind of parenting they received, ranging from cruel to willfully blind, I’d have resorted to smoke and drink myself. Anyway, it’s the misfits who are always more interesting.
Gossip has always been easy to spread in a small town and Rowlings gives it plenty of headroom by allowing the rumors to fly via the parish council’s website, hacked by someone with either an ax to grind or a desire to stir up trouble.
Rowling has been criticized in this book for diluting her wickedly satirical portrait of small-town small-mindedness with a heavy-handed message about attitudes toward the poor and the different. It’s true; I never for a moment felt like laughing. That’s because these people seemed too real, their escalating miseries too close at hand to warrant the sly smile or knowing chuckle. It’s hard to stay above the fray when you feel prodded to jump in and try to save--or slap some sense into--these wayward souls. Harry Potters’ demons were formidable indeed but so too are the demons each of us eventually faces in the course of our ultimately interconnected lives. (less)
After reviewing my book lists from the last two years, I realize I am a sucker for the coming of age tale. From "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" to to "S...moreAfter reviewing my book lists from the last two years, I realize I am a sucker for the coming of age tale. From "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" to to "Swamplandia" to "Tell the Wolves I'm Home" to "The Age of Miracles" and now "The Round House," I'm caught by books about young people. The protagonists are usually between 12 and 17 and they find themselves dealing with absurdly adult concerns--death, loss, betrayal--while tied into the age-specific worlds.
The boy at the center of Louise Erdrich's prize-winning novel faces the aftermath of a profoundly painful event that affects his family. As a young teen growing up on an Indian reservation in the mid-eighties, he must face a myriad of conflicts besides his own impending puberty: a judicial system that treats Native Americans and women differently, conflicts between mainstream and native faiths, the requirements and limits of friendship and what it might mean to become a man. Hardest of all is that this smart and sensitive young man will learn how random events connect and how decisions nearly always have unforeseen consequences.
Erdrich has an ear for communications between and among boys and men and her writing creates its own poetry. Occasionally, her characters overexert themselves in trying to educate us as to the finer points (and inherent unfairness) of the law as applied to Native America. But she's created memorable characters, including a young boy we know will manfully shoulder his responsibilities for life.(less)
Karen Russell is weird. And I mean that as a compliment.
The author of "Swamplandia"--a coming of age story with a touch of the fantastic--returned las...moreKaren Russell is weird. And I mean that as a compliment.
The author of "Swamplandia"--a coming of age story with a touch of the fantastic--returned last month with a short story collection, "Vampires in the Lemon Grove." Ms. Russell might well be the literary love child of Stephen King and Alice Hoffman. Her stories are both whimsical and creepy, her language by turns blunt and lyrical. At every story's beginning and end, I wondered anew, " How in the world did she come up with that?" But Ms. Russell doesn't see the world as we do, or at least she makes all sorts of time/space allowances. Thus we have a pair of vampires subsisting on lemons :bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt"; a group of innocent girls turned into silkworms; a determined set of fans risking their lives to cheer for their hopelessly outmatched team in the Arctic; a massage therapist with the ability to heal more than simple aches. While a few of the stories venture into Poe territory--"Proving Up" pits a group of Nebraska homesteaders against an unknown dark force--many of them suggest the possibility of redemption, even when the human characters find themselves irrevocably and sometimes physically altered.
My favorite story concerned a group of dead presidents reincarnated as horses sharing a stable on a farm in an unnamed year. Initially, the new arrivals, who appear in no obvious chronological order, aren't certain whether they're in heaven or someplace else. But eventually, they revert to type, being essentially political animals. They alternate between grandstanding and scheming about returning to service--for the benefit of a Union that obviously needs them, naturally. All except the gray horse who knows himself as Rutherford B. Hayes, who dreams of reuniting with his beloved wife Lucy and retiring to, well, greener pastures.
In all the stories, the protagonists have something to prove and a shot at redemption or meaning in their lives. It's a surprisingly sweet layer that That such a hopeful theme should run through these quirky, disturbing and mesmerizing tales is an added bonus. (less)