Jim Crace turns a pastoral idyll upside down, with the most breathtaking descriptions I have read in a long time. The rhythm is mesmerizing, creating a fearless poetic landscape not simply of the farmlands Walter Thirsk has inhabited with his fellow villagers, but of the human heart. It may not have won the Man Booker, but this shortlister was well worth the read!
Thirsk came to the unnamed village at an unknown moment in history, to be estimated as anywhere between the 1770s, and the 1880s. This is when the Houses of Parliament were tweaking their fifteen or so varying Enclosure Acts, giving landowners the power to take what had been unfenced common fields, and close them off as sheep herding land. He is not born of the lands he has found himself on, but considers himself a vital part of the community, having been married to one of the locals before her unexpected passing. The simultaneous discovery of foreigners on the outskirts of the villagers' realm, as well as the setting of the barn fire the day after harvest, sets the community to wondering and finger pointing, making even the recently widowed Thirsk's place within the group uncertain.
“There's not a season set aside for pondering and reveries. It will not let us hesitate or rest; it does not wish us to stand back and comment on its comeliness or devise a song for it. It has no time to listen to our song. It only asks us not to tire in our hard work. It wants to see us leathery, our necks and fore-arms burnt as black as chimney oak; it wants to leave us thinned and sinewy from work. It taxes us from dawn to dusk, and torments us at night; that is the taxing that the thrush complains about. Our great task each and every year is to defend ourselves against hunger and defeat with implements and tools.”
To make matters far more tense, Thirsk and his neighbors have noticed another stranger in their midst during harvest. They come to call this one Mr. Quill, as he is mapping out the details of their village. Mr. Quill is clearly working with the support of their landowner Master Kent, a childhood friend of Thirsk's despite class differences, and also a widower. Sadly, Kent is about to be overturned by a direct inheritor of the land; despite years of gently ruling his country neighbors and sharing the labor of planting and harvest. Kent is to be usurped for having no male heir, by his brother in law who will enclose the lands for sheep, scattering the great majority of the villages' population to the winds.
“The mood has changed. It's heavier. We were liquid; now we're stones."
Of course all of these issues culminate into violence; the villagers assume the worst of the new faces on their lands and throw the menfolk of the group in the stocks with a week's sentence for the barn fire. Despite Thirsk's suspicion that a handful of local troublemakers were actually to blame, he keeps quiet.
An accidental death, the spilled secret of what is to be done to the common land, and a grisly attack on the landowner's horse launch all the inhabitants of the village into action, be it for self preservation, or to maintain some semblance of control on the violence. A couple women, and even a small girl are rounded up for questioning, and abused until they confess to witchcraft. The villagers close in upon themselves, labeling Thirsk and the foreigners as enemies.
Our narrator was far from perfect, despite his habit of romanticizing the village and his work. He is pushed and tested to his absolute limits, and Crace sort of shocks the reader with how far even Thirsk was willing to go; this seemingly mild mannered introvert becomes a daring witness to both sides of the village's fall, trusted by Master Kent with the scope of the problems as more than just another farm laborer.
Yet this is not a novel red with blood or loaded with violence; it is tastefully wrought, more of a major catalyst for how the villagers will never be able to recover what they had as the novel opened. Harvest is a brilliant novel about change, survival, and xenophobia, and could not possibly be more timely. So much changes in our own landscape, and Crace's novel asks us: are we too busy being afraid of what we don't know, to notice that what could truly damage us was right under our noses?
Colm Toibin's most recent novella is absolutely not short on feeling. It's an emotional triumph, blazing with regret and sadness. In a rather secular take on Mary, the mother of Jesus, this novel portrays her as a solitary older woman, spending her final days telling her stark story of bitterness and blood to two of his followers, whose agenda is to change the world.
A note to review readers: this is fiction. Don't allow for Toibin's representation of Mary and/or final days of Jesus Christ to be spoiled because of your spirituality. When viewed simply as a fictitious account of a world renowned historical figure, this novella becomes profound in its imaginative powers for being able to take something incredibly familiar, and still be insightful. Having said this, Im sure some may find Toibin's interpretation jarring because of changes to the Biblical story.
Mary journeys to Cana for a wedding, and also to see for herself what many are saying her son has done: he has resurrected Lazarus. She is not portrayed as a heartfelt believer in her son, merely a mother begging him to return home with her, to be safe from the Romans and Jewish leaders whose power swells with their anger and fear.
Mary simply remembers the baby she birthed, remembers how "the new life within me, the second heart beating, fulfilled me beyond anything I had ever imagined." Upon meeting her son, however, Mary finds him who was once "delicate and awash with needs," grown into something shockingly changed.
"There was nothing delicate about him now, he was all displayed manliness, utterly confident and radiant, yes, radiant like light is radiant, so that there was nothing we could have spoken of then in those hours, it would have been like speaking to the stars or the full moon."
The story of the crucifixion is familiar to us, yet it is the mother's narrative that forces us to view the violence and despair with new eyes: "I tried to see his face as he screamed in pain, but it was so contorted in agony and covered in blood that I saw no one I recognized."
It is grief and memory layered upon a bitter twist to the end of events that drives Toibin's novella into a new imagining, as Mary decides to flee the scene of her son's death to save her own life, rather than wait to care for his remains and be arrested as one of his followers, a decision that will haunt her until her own demise:
"I have dreamed I was there. I have dreamed that I held my broken son in my arms when he was all bloody and then again when he was washed, that I had him back for that time,that I touched his flesh and put my hands on his face, which had grown beautiful and gaunt now that his suffering was over."
No matter your affiliation or beliefs, I feel confident that there exists an immense achievement in this novel. It concisely evokes a searingly painful moment of mother love, daring to ask how it may have felt for the world famous Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, to simply be a protective mother. Look at it this way... if you are concerned the differences from the Bible may make you uncomfortable, it isn't a massive undertaking at 81 pages.
This is the third of the Man Bookers short listed for 2013's award that I have reviewed, and I am honestly not convinced that this particular one is up to par, should you ask for my personal opinion. It is brave and emotive, yes, but almost too simple, too concise, hindered by its brevity.
I dearly appreciate the book recommendations my friends share with me, and that is what led me to Kate Atkinson's newest novel, where Ursula Todd dies, and gets multiple chances to relive her life in its entirety.
Born into an upper middle class family in 1910, in a well romanticized English countryside, Ursula experiences her first reincarnation almost immediately, as she is born strangled by her own cord. Immediately the birthing scene begins anew, but this time Ursula survives the birth. As her life continues, she dies again. After multiple restarts on her own chronology, the child Ursula begins to feel imminent threats to her core, the vibrations of where her previous life lead her to her death, attempting to guide her away.
It's a very interesting concept. Ursula is seemingly the agent of most of the changes that either extend her own, or her family members' lives. Atkinson's novel never offers a reason for Ursula's reincarnations. It's an interesting use of magical realism to show the drama within the seemingly simple choices we make, and how they can effect our nearest and dearest. There is wisdom and economy in the various tellings of this family's experiences as they navigate The Great War, coming of age, abuse, and World War II.
Atkinson paints a fabulously sentimental picture of English country life, family love, and the Civil Defense during The Blitz. It's a lovely novel, but not perfect. There's a certain climactic moment where it crosses into alternate history, and this felt cliche. Ursula's changes were so focused onto the Todd's chronology, their survival specifically. It felt overly dramatic to suddenly have Ursula trying to change the course of global history, when her siblings are born again and again into the same jobs, the same marriages. It just didn't seem consistent with the nature of the other changes that Ursula puts into motion during her reincarnations.
Some incarnations follow up with some characters, and others leave their lives hanging, seeking only to resolve an issue brought up by the most recently ended "life". In this manner, I can understand why certain reviewers are comparing the novel to our childhood 'choose your own adventure' reads. Atkinson panders to our consumptive tendencies to seek out stories that have very clearly defined resolution (ie, Ursula manages to avoid the man she had married and whom subjects her to domestic violence in a previous incarnation).
Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed reading about the Todds; Atkinson really beautifully plays with the different dynamics their relationships (as siblings, parents and children) could evolve into throughout each new incarnation Ursula experiences. The narrative does not suffer from a feeling of repetition, either. Every new start just added a new layer of familiarity and emotional connectivity to the family.
I feel like Life After Life is a very approachable novel due to its historical content and sensitivity for family relationships, and would be an enjoyable read for book club discussion. It just betrayed itself by stepping a little too far into the realm of alternate history.
Dan Josefson's debut novel is an odd piece of fiction set in a darkly wrought juvenile camp for troubled children in upstate New York. Benjamin has been abandoned at Roaring Orchards by his parents and narrates his immersion into the strange community that is made up of unreliable, neurotic adults serving as counselors, and their delinquent young charges. These adults are hinted to have just as serious personal problems plaguing them as the kids at the camp, and multiple even dislike the techniques and structure that make Roaring Orchards so different.
The novel is populated by such a large cast of adults and teens that you don't really get a strong sense of any personalities, even our oddly omnipotent narrator Benjamin, who inexplicably describes scenes he didn't witness. Indeed, the character most likely to encourage connection with a reader is Tidbit, who is the closest thing Benjamin has to a friend, and also a compulsive liar. Tidbit's experience with the camp sets the scene, but again oddly enough, as narrated by Benjamin. It's an uncomfortable structure that muddied the waters for me. I kept waiting for Benjamin to have meaningful moments with counselors like Aaron and Doris, who he offers incredibly intimate insights on, but my waiting never offered up any fruit in that case
There really isn't a slow build up to any particular climax, but more the meandering nonsense of day to day antics and outbursts of the kids, paired with the ineffectual and oftentimes laughable pseudo-psychology of the camps' staff, as headed by the elusive and charismatic Aubrey.
The kids are routinely ostracized and manipulated, and sinister enough in their desperation to manipulate right back. That is where Josefson truly shines; you absolutely believe them capable of the haphazard chaos they create within and around themselves. There's a shamelessness in the drama that is life within this dry, sometimes bleak place that Josefson evokes consistently throughout this novel.
Aside from those bursts of action supplied by trouble making kids, the novel doesn't build directly upwards into a climax. It can be a bit dry at times, and chillingly unpredictable. The drawback is that it didn't encourage me to read on from chapter to chapter; it really felt like work. The humor is quiet, and bittersweet. You'll laugh as you flinch at the awkwardness of the shunning and other absurd counseling techniques.
Dave Eggers' latest novel, The Circle, imagines a company that has combined and successfully monopolized elements of Kickstarter, Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Twitter, to name a few. It's reach among young citizens the world over is unparalleled, and it is seen as the most exciting company to work for. Mae Holland is hired in with the assistance of her former college roommate Annie, who has been climbing up The Circle ranks for a number of years. Starting in the Customer Experience department, Mae learns the ropes, and sees that working for The Circle is an understatement; employees are expected to participate within it's social network and community as much as they are responsible for performing their work duties.
The universal operating system that is The Circle has increased online efficiency in an unprecedented way. All purchasing, banking information, personal data, anything attributed to an online presence has been unified in a system that forbids anonymity, seemingly taking the drama out of internet interactions by making the individual accountable for any and all web deeds. Without anonymity, no one can escape responsibility for nasty comments and identity theft, or so goes the theory.
Indeed, privacy is seen by the Three Wise Men (as the three tops of the company are referred to) as selfish; every piece of information and experience should be made accessible to all citizens the world over. They imagine a Utopia of data sharing, where nothing is off limits and class structures are erased by the power of information sharing.
The skeptical reader will raise an eyebrow when Mae is called into human resources for problem mitigating because she didn't attend a party she was invited to online and her dedication to the company is questioned; or when Mae's health stats become a part of her online presence, viewable by all Circle account holders; and when The Circle produces webcams that are cheap enough to put in just about any location, and enable live feeds from every camera to be accessible to all Circle members. The level of surveillance and transparency The Circle aspires to is terrifying.
"SECRETS ARE LIES" "SHARING IS CARING" "PRIVACY IS THEFT"
Mae's success within the company skyrockets when she agrees to go fully transparent, wearing a camera around her neck and providing a live feed of every move she makes, only stopping the feed's audio when she uses the bathroom, and only going offline after 10:00pm if she's going to sleep. Thousands watch her day to day around The Circle campus, as she participates in massive parties, has access to unreleased products to test and rate online, and witnesses The Circle digest the brainchild of countless young thinkers, dying to have their products/concepts manufactured and marketed by the omnipotent Circle.
The Circle is not without it's naysayers though; an enigmatic man habitually questions Mae, and begins to demand that she use her online presence to warn the masses of the dangers inherent in dedicating so much of their lives to their Circle accounts. Mae's family is given free health care, taking a monumental financial load off of her father, who has been struggling with MS. The cost, however, is that they live with these webcams all over their home. The Circle feels that they should want to share their experiences with others who deal with the disease, but they quickly cover the cameras with fabric, attempting to maintain some privacy.
Mae's ex boyfriend, still a presence in her parents' lives, also takes issue with The Circle, believing that it dehumanizes and belittles actual one-on-one interaction. Indeed, Mae is so busy on her phone "smiling" or "frowning" at her followers' comments that she can barely participate in dinner conversation. Sound familiar?
Mae's naivete and oftentimes vapid outlook make her a very difficult protagonist to read. There are so many situations where her ambition and need for authentication via The Circle's social sphere lead her down a very shortsighted, selfish path. Inevitably it is that very naivete and selfishness that drive the novel right into the frightening territory Eggers' wishes to suggest our web-obsessed culture is doomed to take us.
While I certainly appreciate what this novel seeks to accomplish, the metaphors are so obvious it feels awkward. There just wasn't much finesse to how the novel was imagined. It doesn't really delve into any great depths, so much as offer a summary of the varying problems such a monopolizing, totalitarian social network could have on humanity. One is left at the end of the novel at the foothills of the mountain that is Singularity, vaguely aware that an internet creation so all-encompassing can have no other direction in sight.
It's a very straight forward telling of some very complex questions that need to become a part of everyone's discourse. Eggers' true achievement in this novel is that it is imagined only a few years out from what we are currently living. What he's created isn't much of a creative leap, so much as a surreal foreshadowing.
“We all know the world is too big for us to be significant. So all we have is the hope of being seen, or heard, even for a moment.”
Maybe it is my current frame of mind, but minus some really dark quotes and imagery interspersed, this mostly felt like work. It may be up there with...moreMaybe it is my current frame of mind, but minus some really dark quotes and imagery interspersed, this mostly felt like work. It may be up there with The Scarlet Letter in my "classics I will never return to" list. Oi.(less)
I've noticed lots of people since 2009 asking about this novel, or commenting on it (despite the fact that they hadn't read it). Indeed, I am the firs...moreI've noticed lots of people since 2009 asking about this novel, or commenting on it (despite the fact that they hadn't read it). Indeed, I am the first person in four years that I've spoken to (yes, I talk to myself sometimes) to have even picked it up with serious intentions. My thoughts, despite years of "it seems so dry," and "how many hundred pages?! OF HISTORY?" I loved it!
Thomas Cromwell is a trader/lawyer/jack of all trades in sixteenth century England. His king, Henry VIII, has no male heir and wants to move on to a second wife, something the Catholic Church and its representatives from Rome will not stand for. So, how to make it legal? Call in Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey's man about town. This first installment of Cromwellian history follows Wolsey's downfall and Cromwell's rise as he clears a Parliamentary path to legitimize Anne Boleyn and her progeny (spoiler alert: Princess Elizabeth). The political intrigue runs deep; check out the awesome family histories and lists of players that front the novel! Things get complicated with all of that self interest and ambition, and it makes for a fascinating read, especially with such a brilliantly imagined lead character!
Yes, it is a bit dry and meandering. Mantel is building a trilogy detailing the nefarious Thomas Cromwell's rise to power, and his past is very vague in terms of historical record. Not much is actually known of his education and background, as there are contradicting accounts of the years he spent abroad. Mantel wisely uses this as a way to build her lead's enigma, enhancing his impressive career of power-brokering with a seemingly shady start and endless mystery. Indeed, perhaps Ms. Mantel means not only to keep Henry VIII's lords and ladies at court on the fence in regards to Cromwell's self-made ways and ambitions, but readers as well... food for thought.
“But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man's power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.”
It's an era that Hollywood and popular historical fiction have beaten into the ground, yet Mantel's brilliantly researched new viewpoint via Cromwell breathes new life and grit into it. The dialogue is quick and witty, the descriptions politically charged. Mantel's cast is thoroughly immersed in the chess match; every player a motive and every move a backlash. It's such a complicated feat, you have to sit back and be enamored at the patience it required to build such a beautifully wrought thing! (less)
Jhumpa Lahiri is a writer I would consider to be very subtle with her emotional insight. In her fourth novel, The Lowland, she ambitiously exposes readers to a complex moment in India's history, the Naxalite movement of the 1960s, and the ever painful aftermath revolutionary violence can have upon a family.
Brothers Subhash and Udayan Mitra are only separated by fifteen months, and have always been mistaken for one another desptie Subhash, the eldest, being so reserved and cautious, while Udayan the youngest, is the more precocious counterpart. Both brilliant in school, it is during their twenties that Udayan grows frustrated with post-colonial politics, and slowly becomes involved with the Naxalites of Calcutta. While always aware of their differences, it is Udayan's political zeal that slowly pushes the brothers apart, especially once Subhash leaves India to study in Rhode Island.
Impulsive and passionate, Udayan falls for quiet philosophy student Gauri, and is unceremoniously married to her, in spite of his parents wishes. Despite the hope typically implicit in expanding a family, the Mitra family grows segmented and cold with one another. Udayan crosses the line from political activist to enemy of the government, and begins to live a double life of secrets and unexplained absences, afraid even to confide in Subhash, whose temporary visa status as a student in the United States could be jeopardized. Tragedy strikes early in the novel, and the Mitra family as it remains shatters into both large and breathtakingly small pieces.
The novel is propelled forward by the amazing contrast between careful Subhash and daring Udayan; indeed, their early relationship with each other creates a lovely mirror for the two incredibly powerful ways that nations are either changed, or left to stagnate. The whole family must move on from unbelievable tragedy, and at first Subhash and Gauri believe that the only way to escape their grief is to flee India. They slowly come to realize that Udayan's absence can only eat at their hearts even more over time, especially while they struggle to make a place for themselves in the stark landscape of coastal Rhode Island.
I have always admired the truly beautiful way that Lahiri describes the powerful isolation inherent in leaving ones' home country behind, or in grieving. The Lowland country as well as family rolls from one generation to the next, leaving empty rooms, empty houses, empty furniture, and broken hearts.
It's a beautiful novel, full of loss and emotion, brave in it's handling of three generations' differences and grieving. Lahiri calls all possible different familial roles into question, fearlessly discussing the ways we can fail others, even as we fail ourselves. It is a very sad book, but one I'm eager to recommend as it is so wonderfully crafted. It became available today, and don't forget that it is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize of 2013! If you haven't read my review for Ruth Ozeki's shortlisted novel A Tale for the Time Being, make sure you check it out.