A unique and unforgettable take on the Norse gods.
The culture of Iceland is explored, during the time period when Christianity just begins to encroachA unique and unforgettable take on the Norse gods.
The culture of Iceland is explored, during the time period when Christianity just begins to encroach on the old religion via Norway. It's a beautiful blend of myth and history, weaving such characters as gods, half-gods, "dwarves" and "giants" into a tapestry of characters who feel lush and real.
The book does a marvelous job of turning the original legend of Freya's necklace into a plausible story (as long as you're willing to accept a few premises, such as the concept of a woman turning into a falcon with the aid of a magic cloak.) As various characters struggle for possession of the legendary necklace, the Brisingamen, it becomes clear that they are really struggling with various aspects and facets of love. Their individual conflicts play out against the violent and chaotic landscape of Iceland, culminating in inevitable geologic tragedy that still has a bit of a silver lining.
The structure leans more toward the literary, with focus on prose and style, so if that's not your thing you probably won't enjoy Ice Land. However, if you are a fan of rich words, poignant emotion, and experimental structure, this is one you won't want to miss.
I listened to the audiobook with Davina Porter narrating. Every time Porter opens her mouth solid gold falls out, so if you want a bonus treat, get the audiobook version of Ice Land and enjoy....more
I'm trying to think of a way to describe this book, and "immensely satisfying" is the only descriptor that's coming to mind. That seems so we4.5 stars
I'm trying to think of a way to describe this book, and "immensely satisfying" is the only descriptor that's coming to mind. That seems so weak, though! "Satisfying" implies just-okayness, but Theodora was anything but "just okay."
I think what feels so satisfying about this novel is the realization that fine craftsmanship is still alive and well within historical fiction. Since the success of The Other Boleyn Girl, the general tone of HF has taken a bit of a nose-dive as more and more authors (and publishers) strive to replicate that same success. Rather than telling a story that feels true and real, it seems to me that so many have just attempted to put the features of TOBG into whatever historical setting they happen to have on their plate. The result has been near-consistent disappointment with almost every historical novel I've read for YEARS...at least from larger publishers, who seem to be caught up in this frantic race to find the next TOBG rather than trying to find the next good historical novel. (Of course, this isn't the case for all books I've read since TOBG. It's just hard to recall that sometimes, when the market is so flooded with so many copies of the same-old, same-old.)
So I am very much satisfied, and gratified, and very happy to know that at least Stella Duffy is out there putting her all into her OWN really good historical novel. And this one is really good, and it really feels like it's hers.
It was such an enjoyment for me that I actually don't know where to start in talking about it. One of the things I just loved, loved, loved was the uniqueness of the "lower class" characters' voices. The actresses, whores, animal trainers, and teacher-eunuchs were remarkably real-feeling, and this was achieved with the PERFECT balance of modern-day four-letter-words and turns of phrases, worked very sparingly and deliberately against carefully constructed "sets" of detail and character motivations, voices, and dialogue that felt otherwise entirely a part of 500 C.E. Constantinople. As I write HF myself, I know what a really remarkable feat this is, to make not only individual characters but even entire strata of society feel so vibrant and true. Duffy's great care and forethought in the construction of her world -- not only the place and time but also the society -- was evident, and something a fellow writer appreciates and applauds.
The plot itself was perfectly paced. It opens superbly, right in the midst of young Theodora's already rich personality, and the main character's motives and actions feel authentic and logical, given the person she is. For those who know the real history ("real" history in air-quotes, as who knows what Procopius's problem was), all the best moments of the true Theodora tales are there, brought to vivid, breathtaking life for the reader. Some moments were heartbreaking; some were laugh-out-loud funny (I cracked up on the treadmill at the gym over Theodora giving her performance of Leda and the Swan..."Zeus! O God!" hahahah.) Many moments surprised, even for somebody who has a fairly good familiarity with the historical accounts of Theodora and Justinian.
Speaking of which, where gaps existed in the historical accounts, Duffy did a spectacular job of bridging those gaps with plausible scenes, richly detailed and well executed, which linked the known bits of history with stronger and stronger chains as Duffy's skill with character and atmosphere took over.
It was a truly fantastic book, beautiful and rich with superb character work and unforgettable voice. My only regret in reading it is that I was planning my own take on the Theodora story, to be written a couple of years in the future, and I had been tinkering with the idea of using a certain totally-fictional plot device that Duffy already beat me to. Nuts -- I'll have to come up with something else. I can't begrudge such a good author the "theft" of my idea (years before I thought of it, of course!) because her book was such a pleasure to read.
This book was SO CLOSE to being a 5 for me (pretty rare in my historical fiction reads, as I am just as hard-nosed about setting and accuracy as any other big-time HF fan) and I would have joyfully given it five, but for the occasional turn of phrase that pushed the anachronism envelope just a bit too far and plucked me out of the story. But I was only out for a heartbeat, and then I was right back in again.
This one was first published in 2010, if I remember correctly, right at the beginning of the tidal wave of bizarre linguistic discrepancies that has washed over and swamped recent historical fiction. What is UP with publishers doing this to HF? I can only assume it's publishers calling for a "beachier" voice (again, the influence of TOBG), because it's very difficult to imagine that Stella Duffy's otherwise gorgeous prose and careful attention to maintaining proper historical detail and atmosphere would allow for the infiltration of such modern language on its own, without the influence of a publisher who's panicking over an ever-diminishing share of the market. (How do you get more readers? Appeal to a wider audience, goes the common thinking, and I guess a wider audience isn't capable of handling real-feeling historical dialogue without the occasional "okay" thrown in...? Oh, publishers. SMH.) Anyway, the rare breach of modern voice wasn't really that bad. It certainly wasn't the most confusingly modernized HF I've read. (It wasn't even the most modernized fiction about Theodora I've read.)
I noted on Stella Duffy's GR author page that HBO has optioned her Theodora novels to potentially produce as a mini-series. YAY! I hope they do, as I've loved HBO's handling of A Song of Ice and Fire (also a series for which I am way too fannish and super-nitpicky). It would be a real pleasure to see the same team (or a similar one) bring this book to life on film.
I am downloading the sequel, The Purple Shroud, at this moment and will gleefully carry it off to the gym as soon as I click Save on this review, so I can continue experiencing Duffy's fantastic, artfully portrayed, near-perfect depiction of Constantinople and its amazing Augusta.
Wow, wow, wow. What a tremendous debut novel. This was one of those books that stayed with me whenever I was not reading it, and spookily, continues tWow, wow, wow. What a tremendous debut novel. This was one of those books that stayed with me whenever I was not reading it, and spookily, continues to stay with me after I read the final page. Spooky in a good way -- a way that makes me admire author Laura Rae Amos's craft in a way that is more astounded gobsmackery than mere admiration.
The plot of the novel is as thin and incidental as any literary novel's plot is permitted to be: three people, Jodie, Amelia, and Drew, run into personal conflict when their lives, already deeply entangled due to their shared history, intersect in new and challenging ways. Plot-wise, it's not much. But it doesn't need to be. The great strength of this book -- and it is a very great strength indeed -- is the incredible, subtle, deliberate craft Amos employs in depicting these characters and a cast of supporting characters who feel so real, so human and complete, that I actually found myself thinking about their predicament constantly whenever I had to put this book down. They are so well-crafted that they settled into my brain, occupying the same place my good friends occupy -- the people I have known forever, the people who are always real to me and always in my thoughts, even if I haven't seen them or spoken to them in a long time. You don't read this book; you feel it, and I felt it in a way I haven't felt many books before, with a deep and palpable bond to these people who don't actually exist. To be honest, the experience tripped me out some.
And yet it even feels somewhat wrong to call this book a literary novel, for although it relies entirely on the thoughts and emotions of its characters to carry the reader along, most readers associate "literary" writing with at least some amount of flourish and shazzam. But not once does Amos go over the top in her craft. The writing here is so gentle and assured, so confident, that the only word I can really think of to describe it is classy. It's classy prose, with perfect posture, a firm handshake, and wearing a well-tailored Chanel dress. It needs to prove nothing to you; it knows where it's going, where it's been, and how amazing it looks walking down the street. If Amos is not supremely assured of her own clarity and strength as a writer, she sure as hell knows how to fake it.
As I read the book, I was reminded of two other authors' works. In EWTF's exploration of the baffling complexities of friendship-love and its often hazy intersection with romance-love, it reminded me of several of Maeve Binchy's novels, which I love. In its frank exposure of the inner lives of its cast of characters, showing the reader all of what lurks inside their heads and hearts, it reminded me of Tigers in Red Weather, one of the best books I read in 2012. Yet where Tigers explores the inner lives of people barely clinging to the upper class, EWTF's characters are all middle-class, ordinary, and average. Their struggles, their desires, their sorrows and joys are not one whit less compelling than Liza Klaussman's characters even though they lack the tarnished shine of wealth.
As far as books that explore the strange and tender complexities of every possible variety of love-relationship (romance, family, friend, one-night-stand...you name it), this is the best I've yet read, bar none. And although we are still less than two months into 2013, I have a feeling Exactly Where They'd Fall might turn out to be the most impressive book I read all year.
This is the kind of book -- and the kind of author -- the traditional publishing industry has long since lost sight of. This is the kind of book and the kind of author the traditional publishing industry only wishes it could debut. Fortunately for readers everywhere, authors as skilled and nuanced as Amos have not withered up and died as publishers have turned away from subtler, more artistic works like EWTF in favor of Twilight fanfiction and books by Snooki. They're doing it on their own now, thank all the gods of pixel and pen. I cannot wait for more from Laura Rae Amos. And neither can you; trust me. Based on the strength of her debut novel, she just might be the first indie author to win a major literary award. Get it now while the getting's good, and tell your friends a few years down the line that you read her debut novel before anybody knew who she was, you hipster, you....more
Wow. I didn't think it was possible to follow up Wolf Hall with a book that was practically just as good, but Hilary Mantel is some kind of4.5 stars.
Wow. I didn't think it was possible to follow up Wolf Hall with a book that was practically just as good, but Hilary Mantel is some kind of wizard. I am flabbergasted by the skill of this writer.
Bring Up the Bodies follows the decline of the Boleyn family, seen once more through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. I am so impressed with Mantel's take on Cromwell as a character. He is incredibly complex and fascinating: a man who never gets over his dead wife, who pines for his children (eventually coming to long more, it seems, for the one he hardly knew than for the one who spent more time with him and whose personality he really understood), who takes in orphans and sets them up well in the world, who is tender toward animals...and who will not balk at terrifying or even torturing people when politics demand it. Nor will he balk at bringing down the people he once helped to raise. He's hard to hate. He's hard to love. He's so damn real.
This one is just a half a star less amazing than Wolf Hall because parts lost my attention here and there. I found it possible to put this one down when I needed to, whereas Wolf Hall I could not leave alone except to sleep. There is really not much to fault in Bring Up the Bodies, though. It's a glorious work of fiction, an amazing work of craft...like Wolf Hall, it's a book all writers should study and learn from....more
So I am listening to this audiobook (easily one of the best audio productions I've ever heard, by the way, up there with Jeremy Irons reading Lolita!)So I am listening to this audiobook (easily one of the best audio productions I've ever heard, by the way, up there with Jeremy Irons reading Lolita!) and I am only about an hour and a half into the book, and already I can tell this is a five-star book.
OH. MY GOD, YOU GUYS. THE PROSE. It is so expert, so tight, so well crafted! I am freaking out! When I first began to listen, I had that gobsmacked moment that all writers get from time to time when, confronted by the work of a true master artist, they wonder why the hell they're bothering, because they'll never be this good, ever, no matter how earnestly they work at it. And then I felt this fantastic rush of inspiration, to see historical fiction so beautifully, artfully, meticulously written, on so many levels of structure and craft, and I realized the bar had been raised for me, all around, forever and ever, and that while I could never expect to achieve such heights myself, I sure will have a fun career trying for a lifetime to write a historical novel half as awesome as Hilary Mantel's.
And I really hate Tudor stuff, too. So sick of it. That's why I resisted reading Wolf Hall for as long as I did, despite the well-earned accolades it's received. I just couldn't make myself face more Tudor. I don't even mind the Tudorishness in this book. It is such a pleasure to experience Mantel's excellent, mind-bogglingly crafted writing. She could write about anything, and I'd read it.
Fan for life. Haven't even finished the book. ...more
I waffled for a long time in deciding whether to pony up the $12.99 for this ebook. On the one hand, I was powerfully drawn to that killer title. On tI waffled for a long time in deciding whether to pony up the $12.99 for this ebook. On the one hand, I was powerfully drawn to that killer title. On the other, I knew from the blurb that a) it's about rich people in angst, and b) two of the characters are named Nick and Daisy. Ooooh-kay. So Liza Klaussmann thinks she's F. Scott Fitzgerald. It's a dangerous thing for a writer to make such an obvious comparison between her own work -- especially a debut novel -- and such an important literary work as The Great Gatsby. I wondered whether she was just trying to write Gatsby Post-War, or what. I doubted she could pull it off. I sneered a little, thinking about it.
Then I bought it, because I had to go to work and I really, really needed some new reading material for my lunch break and those boring hours when nothing happens and I can sit there and read.
Boy, am I glad I bought this book. And although I am still a little in disbelief at the bozack it takes to compare one's self to Fitzgerald, damn, Klaussmann pulls it off, and she's got a pretty objective view of her own writing. That's something rare among writers.
Tigers in Red Weather follows the really messed-up lives of five members of a single family: Nick is a woman, and a stretch to shoehorn allusions to Nick Caraway into this text; I would have preferred a more traditionally female name for her, as I kept mistaking her dialog lines for those of her husband or other male characters to whom she was speaking. Nick is virtually the main character of the book, although equal time is given to four other family members. Nick, though, has "it," an alluring presence -- even though she is not a particularly gorgeous woman -- that imbues her with social power and draws many different people into her orbit. Nick wants a life full of adventure. Instead, she gets a life of upper-class role-playing, stuck as she is in the post-war era when women had many more social restrictions than they have now.
Helena is her cousin, though the two are closer and more like sisters. Helena is timid and easily swayed by the more powerful personalities in her life.
Daisy, my favorite character, is a strong young woman, and maybe the only one to retain some sense of perspective and normalcy throughout the course of the novel.
Hughes is Nick's husband and Daisy's father. He, too, has been corralled by upper-class convention into living a life different from the one he longs for. But he does the best he can with what he's got, trying to be the best man he can be for his family's sake. I found him to be very sympathetic and moving in his secrecy.
Ed is, well, pretty messed up. The son of Helena and an obsessive con-artist film-maker, Ed has some creepy preoccupations with things and people which don't inspire creepy preoccupations in normal young men.
It's a larger cast of characters than in The Great Gatsby, or at least the book delves deeper into more characters' heads than Gatsby does, but there are strong similarities between the two novels. Tigers in Red Weather makes the point more blatantly that wealth and standing don't solve anybody's damn problems; that if anything, those in the social spotlight have to work harder to conceal the ugly parts of their lives than other people may expect. Like Gatsby, Tigers is a story about the mythology of perfection.
And like Fitzgerald, Klaussmann's writing is so precise it makes me ache to realize how flawless writing can be. As a reader, I was gobsmacked by the potency of such subtle imagery as the broken radio wrapped in tissue paper -- imagery presented so quietly that it is all the stronger for the lack of fanfare surrounding it. As a writer, I was both envious and greatly inspired by the care and confidence of Klaussmann's craft. From the first chapter, I got the feeling that every word in every sentence was carefully chosen, that this was a book written with an astounding amount of skill. And I found myself thinking, about halfway through, "Yeah, it's okay to name your characters Nick and Daisy. You're living up to your own implied bombast quite nicely. Well played, Liza. Well played."
This book makes me want to be a better writer. This book made me find new ways to perfect my own craft. I love it when I find a book that does that.
So why four stars? I'm not sure I'm totally on board with the final segment of the novel. Each segment is told from the point of view of one of the five characters mentioned above, in a close third-person perspective. The fifth and final segment switches to the POV of Ed, after he's landed in a hospital, and it's told in first person, switching between past-tense flashbacks and present-tense scenes of the hospital. I hated the transition here. Somehow the first-person stuff didn't carry the same power and care of the preceding third-person parts, and the sense of artfulness fell apart. Plus, with the final section of the book the theme veered away from literary fiction reminiscent of The Great Gatsby and into thriller/mystery territory, though just barely into that territory. While the change of theme provides closure and answers a lot of questions other readers no doubt found nagging, I would have preferred to leave those questions hanging for the sake of preserving that good, angsty, delicate-imagery literary tone.
But that's just me. Other readers' mileage will vary, and most will probably find Ed's narrative to be a satisfying conclusion to a very good book about very bad lies.
This is easily one of the best books I've read in 2012, whether it was released in 2012 or not. Highly recommended....more
In the late 1800s the United States was only beginning to see a social and governmental trend toward environmental consciousness and conservation. ThiIn the late 1800s the United States was only beginning to see a social and governmental trend toward environmental consciousness and conservation. This novel explores the drama of this shift in American policy and awareness, using the story of a young man, Fin McFaddin, who first hunts birds for their plumage (for the fashion industry -- specifically, women's fancy hats), then eventually becomes a ranger, protecting the same habitats he once over-harvested from the hunters who have now become illegal poachers. Tied in with Fin's story are the stories of his lifelong friend Aiden Elliott, who helps resuscitate the ailing Audubon Society and whose interest in politics helps bring conservation laws into place; Aiden's girl Phoebe; and Aiden's sister Maggie, who has always loved Fin.
There are strong romantic themes in the novel which sometimes, I felt, eclipsed the story I expected to read, which was a conservation/environmental drama, something that leaned more toward literary fiction. Yet the novel lacks the expected "happily ever after" ending found in the romance genre. Also detracting from the story I'd hoped to read was the omnipotent narrative voice, which can be quite effective in many novels but here served to create too much emotional distance from the various characters, particularly Fin, so that when the tragic climactic scene occurred the whole thing felt rushed, impersonal, and lacked the impact it should have had. Because the omniscient narrator never delved deep into any given character (as is appropriate for omni), I found it strikingly difficult to understand and empathize with any of the characters. For a story that relies on the intensity of love, passion, hate, fear, and a deep connection to nature, I question whether omniscient was the best choice. I suspect a close third for each given character would have drawn me closer to all of them and made the key emotional points of the story, particularly the tragic scene at the end, far more impactful. Perhaps due to the narrative distance I felt from the characters, I found them and their stories to be somewhat predictable, so that I was able to see each plot twist coming and nothing was a surprise.
...And that's not a bad thing, necessarily. This book feels familiar because it's full of archetypal characters, and archetypal characters speak to us on a fundamental level. The bad guy who is unequivocally bad (and unattractive to boot); the everyman, bumpkin hero; the plucky female lead who eschews traditionally womanish roles and follows her heart in spite of societal pressures; the irresistibly beautiful and proper woman whom the hero cannot forget. Familiar characters are good because they ARE familiar. Their presence and their very predictability can be comforts in fiction. The archetypes in The Plume Hunter welcomed me into a book that could otherwise have been difficult for me to enjoy with its standoffish narrative style.
All in all, it was a good book, and enjoyable read, but not quite what I expected based on the blurb. It did get me interested in learning more about the plume-hunting industry and the history of conservation efforts in the Pacific Northwest -- a subject I know woefully little about, given that I am really into conservation and I live in the PNW. So it has inspired me to learn more and to care more, and I think that was one of the author's chief goals: to make her readers care. In that, it was entirely successful....more
Two stars for the majority of the book. Four stars for the middle section. And a lot of confusion as to why an author would make such a choice in combTwo stars for the majority of the book. Four stars for the middle section. And a lot of confusion as to why an author would make such a choice in combining three disparate writing styles into a single novel.
Red Water examines, through fiction, the life and death of John D. Lee, the scapegoat who was executed for the infamous Mountain Meadow(s) Massacre in Utah, one of the darkest stains on the history of the Mormon Church. This examination is accomplished through the perspectives of three of his many wives.
The first part of the book is disproportionately large -- fully half the novel is devoted to the perspective of Emma, and English immigrant who becomes Lee's eighteenth wife. Or seventh, depending on how you count it. Emma is willful and smart, independent and witty. She struggles to find her place among a polygamist family, at first eagerly marrying Lee because of his considerable charisma, then floundering a bit as she tries to come to terms with the full implications of "living the Principle," as the early Mormons called the practice of polygamy. She would make a delightful and fascinating point-of-view character were it not for the incredibly dry, all-tell, nondescriptive writing in her voice. Emma is not writing a journal, yet her narration has the feel of a journal, with long stretches of nothing happening other than Emma listing off dates and the minutiae of things that happened. Well-written historical fiction has a lot of information about the details of everyday life in a past time and place, but well-written historical fiction is also entertaining and engrossing. Emma's narration was seldom engaging. When it was, it was due to the events happening and not Emma's narrative voice, which could have enhanced the action of the story and made it far more memorable.
The final portion of the book, told from the point of view of Rachel in the style of a journal spanning the year following Lee's execution, was so boring I almost gave up the book unfinished. Instead, after ascertaining that I could expect no improvement in the style and that I would indeed have to slog through a long litany of weather reports and detail-less lists of typical arid farming chores without any attempt to bring me into the setting or into the character's heart, I flipped through the last part of the book quickly, skimming for content. Even the scene where Rachel cuts off her friend's gangrenous foot left me not caring, it was described so dully. Yes, pioneer journals were often written in such a style, but this is fiction. More imagination and more regard for the reader's desire for entertainment are required.
Contrast these two difficult parts (one, again, fully half of this long novel) with the middle portion, told from the point of view of Ann, Lee's youngest wife, a cross-dressing, possibly bisexual, horse-wrangling, smart-mouthed, strong-willed girl who wants no children and who entered into a polygamist marriage as the first in a long string of adventures she intends to have. (In truth she did it for another reason, one that marks her as a shrewd and caring person, even at a very young age, and further develops her character.) Ann's narrative voice is in the third person and the writing craft displayed in this part of the book is rapturously gorgeous. Freeman spared nothing here in making the harsh, strange landscape of Utah spring to life. Other reviewers have called Ann's chapters dull. I, however, can never get enough of watching a good writer illustrate the stark, disturbingly vibrant land and cultures of Deseret, the place where I, more or less, am from, and the place where my ancestors carved out lives for themselves. Utah may be the butt of jokes in contemporary American society, but spend some time in its wilderness areas and you will have a different impression of it. It is a place that can weigh you down with equal parts beauty and despair; it is an endless place of harshness and bright color. It's like nowhere else in the world, and experiencing it through Ann's perspective was refreshing and very enjoyable. Why Freeman couldn't inject a little more of that into the other two parts of the novel is beyond me.
All in all, it's a decent book. The events at Mountain Meadow were not well explained in this novel, so readers who are not familiar with the history of the event may be confused as to what the hell everybody keeps referencing. The massacre is only lightly touched on, which is appropriate for a novel that seeks to understand how such a tragedy can continue to influence a region (and a family) many years after the fact, but might leave unfamiliar readers wondering what the big deal was. ...more
A dark, disturbing, and unforgettably beautiful novel which pays homage to nature and examines man's place in it. There's a good reason why readers keA dark, disturbing, and unforgettably beautiful novel which pays homage to nature and examines man's place in it. There's a good reason why readers keep describing this book as a blend of Cormac McCarthy and Wallace Stegner. It's the most apt description I could come up with, too. Crooked Creek combines the compelling bleakness of McCarthy with Stegner's rapturous imagery of Western nature, and the mixture is surprisingly appealing. I have seldom read a more lovely and unsettling novel. It moves with a quiet power, a subtle terribleness, full of images the reader will not soon forget -- the dead bird in the spider's web opening its black eye, the crate full of apples rotting in the ground.
I am from the general region where this book takes place...more or less. I was moved by how perfectly Werner captured the awful sublimity of Rocky Mountain farming valleys. It made me feel like I was back home again, for better and for worse.
Strongly recommended for fans of McCarthy and Stegner. Just don't expect a happy ending....more
It's been a long time since I've encountered a book that takes such a hold of me that I feel tormented by not reading it. Once my weekend arrived, I rIt's been a long time since I've encountered a book that takes such a hold of me that I feel tormented by not reading it. Once my weekend arrived, I read this book in the bathtub, at the gym on two different pieces of workout equipment (I had to stop for a few minutes while I worked on my arms...have you ever tried to operate a Kindle while lifting weights? Not easy) and while folding laundry. I literally could not stop reading it.
Thank goodness for small presses. Thank goodness for adventuresome souls willing to take a risk on books which are out-there, different, beyond the typical, and worthy of preservation. The Scholar of Moab is not the kind of book that would find its way into a Big Six imprint in this day and age. But that, of course, is not an indicator of quality. As the economy continues to flounder the usual publishers seem to grow more and more conservative in their acquisitions, and while perhaps ten or fifteen years ago a book like this one would have been grabbed immediately by a big publishing house, today there's just no way in hell. Not enough zombies, vampires, or tragic family sagas set on the Asian continent. I am so grateful that Torrey House and other discerning small presses are hunting down and acquiring and offering such under-represented voices and settings in fiction. Few authors are working with the contemporary American West, but Steven L. Peck proves it's a setting full of beauty, character, and mystery.
The Scholar of Moab concerns one Hyrum Thayne, a sincere and curious man who lacks education and worldliness but who manages to impact the lives of several interesting people in his small red-rocks world -- Dora Tanner, a poet who may or may not be unhinged; William and Edward Babcock, a pair of polyglot conjoined twins with a penchant for cowboying; the Babcocks' mysterious sibling Marcel; and the Redactor, the amateur historian who presents their stories in the form of recovered documents, letters, and transcripts of interviews. Bearing up the stories of these unforgettable people is a mystery that keeps the reader hooked until the end: who killed Dora's newborn baby? Or was the baby killed at all?
Interwoven throughout are bits and pieces of Mormon theology and mythology, and the text plays in intriguing, clever ways with the concept of a trinity, a theme that bears out to the poignant final lines of the book.
The writing itself is compelling and confident, and shows a good deal of impressive craft. Even without the Redactor's headings on each document, it's obvious from the distinctive voices which characters are "speaking." Peck is a writer with impressive chops, one to watch and one to follow.
The Scholar of Moab is literary fiction at its finest: evocative, haunting, gorgeous, and more than a little strange. In its weirdness and humanity it reminds me of Geek Love, and fans of that book will certainly love this one. Those who found Geek Love too overwhelming will find The Scholar of Moab to be a softer, more accessible, more lovable version -- but still bizarre and still unforgettable.
An imaginative, weird, and often funny look at what happens when one man dies and finds out the true religion was Zoroastrianism, and he's bound for aAn imaginative, weird, and often funny look at what happens when one man dies and finds out the true religion was Zoroastrianism, and he's bound for a rehabilitative Hell. Don't worry; he only has to stay for a little while, until he's been brought around. Unfortunately God and his/her demons reckon time differently from the way humans do, and his short stay in Hell stretches for a virtual eternity while he searches for the one book containing the story of his life among more books than there are atoms in the universe.
Cleverly, this novella explores the origins of religion and the role of violence in human nature as background themes. The little society which builds itself up in Peck's imaginative Hell is fun and funny, but it certainly has its problems, and goes through familiar evolutions as the eons pass. A novella, though, may not be the perfect vehicle for such a story. In some respects it felt too short, too pat for the larger ideas it contained. I would love to see this scenario redone as a full-length novel, so the characters and setting could be more fully explored, so the ending could feel like more of an unmistakable wrap-up (even considering not much is actually wrapped up; the ending still seemed abrupt), and so the entire Rebecca situation could feel like a more convincing motivation for the narrator.
It's hard not to compare two different works by the same author. So I won't try to avoid that. I recently read and loved The Scholar of Moab, Peck's novel. By comparison with this novella, Scholar was far more engaging and poignant, to the point that I couldn't stop reading it, even at inconvenient times. Longer forms may be Peck's greater strength, though I've only read two of his works, so how can I say for sure? In all, though, A Short Stay in Hell is worth reading. It's quick, smart, and funny, and boy am I glad I'm not in Hell....more
This is the book we all had to read back in high school, along with The Great Gatsby, because our English teachers felt a responsibility to impart toThis is the book we all had to read back in high school, along with The Great Gatsby, because our English teachers felt a responsibility to impart to us an appreciation for great literature, even though all we cared about was making out and/or eating Gorditos in our friends' Plymouth Dusters while having deep discussions about the nature of humanity.
Like The Great Gatsby, this is a book that flies right over the heads of teenagers, a book that can't really be fully understood by them because they lack the appropriate frame of reference. That's no fault of theirs -- the appropriate frame of reference for both novels (and so many others taught in so many high schools) is age. Most people don't "get" what's so great about Gatsby until they're in their 30s, and preferably, as in my case, have at least one divorce behind them to help put it all in perspective.
Since I was unimpressed with Gatsby as a teen but came to adore it beyond all measure after my divorce proceedings were finally finalized, I figured I ought to give The Catcher in the Rye an adult shot, too.
The result was a resounding "MEH." It certainly wasn't bad, but it didn't grab me by the face and scream I AM RELEVANT TO YOUR EXPERIENCE in the same way Gatsby did.
Perhaps that's because I found Holden Caulfield to be such an insufferable little shit. He starts out unpleasant and finishes unpleasant, and I never found myself really caring whether he made his breakthrough discoveries about life or himself or the nature of humanity while eating Gorditos in his friend's Plymouth Duster. He was just miserable to spend time with, and I realized with a sense of seasickness that I was on an accelerating time-warp, speeding toward my grave; that I had crossed some threshold somewhere back about five years ago, where, during a very special and very transient point in my existence, I could have really understood Holden and identified with him; where his wryness and darkness could have spoken to me.
But now I was in my 30s, I had the debt of a divorce to pay off, a car payment, and an affair with a tattooed Coastie who lived on a boat in a seedy Seattle marina and who was two years younger than me -- and that latter fact thrilled me more than it would have thrilled a Holden Caulfield, and all I could really glean from his experience was an icky sense of entitlement and a vague sensation that I wanted him to get the hell off my lawn.
I missed my Catcher in the Rye window, so I couldn't feel any more strongly about this book than three stars. Alas. I'm sure it's excellent if you read it at just the right point in your life.
I recommend that you read it between the ages of 21 and 26. I also recommend that you have an affair with a tattooed Coastie who's two years younger than you and lives on a boat. Best to have said affair while reading The Great Gatsby. It's really a lot better than you remember from high school.
P.s. The Coastie and I are still together and are very happy with our lives, and are living in a house, not on a boat in a seedy Seattle marina. Holden Caulfield would not approve, but I do....more
Five stars for amazing writing. Didn't finish because it depressed the hell out of me and eventually I couldn't function from the downer-ness of thisFive stars for amazing writing. Didn't finish because it depressed the hell out of me and eventually I couldn't function from the downer-ness of this book (and its vividness.) Had to quit early. Still don't know how it ends....more
I'm unsure exactly where I come down on this book, so I'm splitting the difference and giving it a nice, safe middle rating.
There were things I enjoyeI'm unsure exactly where I come down on this book, so I'm splitting the difference and giving it a nice, safe middle rating.
There were things I enjoyed and things I did not.
What I liked: it's fascinating to watch the journey out of religion, and for many people/characters, it's also emotionally wrenching to experience that particular journey. This book struck a chord with me since, like the main character Marguerite, I was raised Mormon and eventually left the Church when I was in my twenties. Unlike Marguerite, the leaving was not so traumatic for me, but in my subsequent work with the atheism visibility movement I have met many, many people who suffered trauma far worse than that which Marguerite experiences as they separated themselves from religion. It is an important and very human journey, and a story I like to hear in all its various versions and iterations as often as I can.
What I didn't like kept me from connecting as strongly with this book as I had hoped to do.
First, as Marguerite is a philosophy student, she often couches her understanding of the process in philosophical terms. So often, in fact, that for somebody like me who has only the most rudimentary grasp of philosophy, the frequent reliance on philosophical imagery and reference made the narrative feel too dense and slow-moving, too confusing, and sometimes alienating. Because Marguerite understands herself so well in philosophical terms, the reader risks not understanding her well at all, unless she (the reader) is also very well-versed in philosophy. (As a side note, if you are a philosophy nut you ought to love this book!)
Unfortunately the two distinct narrative styles also forced a great distance between the reader and the main character. In parts, the book is related from a very distant third-person perspective, where the narrator relays Marguerite's thoughts and feelings to the reader in a "telling" sort of way, which has an apropos academic sort of feel to it, but which doesn't facilitate a deeper understanding of an already hard-to-understand character. In other parts, the book turns to a first-person journaling style, which is interesting, but so faithful to the feel of a real journal, with a filtered relaying of information, with a "telling" style, that once more I found it nearly impossible to connect with Marguerite.
There are two points where I felt I really saw Marguerite's feelings, where I understood not only her struggle with faith but who she was as a whole person (and where I saw what author Therese Doucet was capable of when her creative voice was given precedence over the more academic, philosophical writing.) Both were the parts where Marguerite expressed herself in poetry. In both instances, the writing was colorful, lyrical, an poignant, and allowed me to see, in just a few short lines, what was really going on with Marguerite -- what was really inside her. After the second poem, Marguerite says in her journal, "Sadly, like me, my poems are never opaque enough and lack all subtlety." But that's exactly what readers need in order to connect to a person undergoing such a radical, painful transformation -- not the filtration of narrative distance, but the immediacy of real emotion, no matter how raw or frightening that emotion might be.
All in all, it was an enjoyable book, with its too-accurate depictions of Mormon campus life and the pall of depression such expectations can throw over a young person. Marguerite's constant crushes on usually unobtainable guys were charmingly silly, and very endearing. I remember being a young Mormon woman struggling with how to reconcile my faith and my attraction to various young men. I liked those parts of the book, and I was happy to see that Marguerite does end up with a promising relationship in the end. I just wished I'd understood all the emotional nuances of the path that took her there better....more
I hated this book. I will never read it again, ever, as long as I live. And it absolutely deserves five stars.
The Plague Dogs is one of the most visceI hated this book. I will never read it again, ever, as long as I live. And it absolutely deserves five stars.
The Plague Dogs is one of the most visceral, wrenching, emotional reads you'll ever find. It follows the fortunes of two dogs, Snitter and Rowf, who escape from a medical testing lab. In an attempt to cover up the unnecessary nature of the research done there, the humans running the lab start a media scare about the dogs, claiming that they carry a serious virus which may kill humans. In this way, the dogs find themselves effectively on their own, without a person to turn to for help or kindness.
The dogs fall in with Tod, a fox with a thick Scottish accent, who gives them advice as they attempt to adapt to the harsh realities of living as wild animals. But dogs are not wild animals -- they crave and need the companionship of people; and as Snitter and Rowf try to reconcile their need for humanity with their circumstances as de facto wild animals, they remember and relive the better times, when they were pets, before they ended up at the lab.
It's an emotionally grinding book, bleak and ultimately painful. The final scene is tragic and still brings tears to my eyes as I remember it, more than fifteen years after reading the novel.
It's the kind of story that, once you've visited it a single time, will remain with you, powerfully, for life. And for that, along with Adams' gorgeous writing and deft storytelling, it deserves five stars and more.
But because it's too bleak to read again, I can never really love this book. I can respect very deeply the message it conveys and the skill of the author in telling such an honest, affecting story. But I just can't like this book....more