I will be very blunt here and tell you that at first I almost just put the book down because it did not hold my interest. After I got into the story I will be very blunt here and tell you that at first I almost just put the book down because it did not hold my interest. After I got into the story of Jeremy Hallam, however, I regained said lost interest & was mesmerized.
Before I offer a look inside (don't worry, as always, no spoilers), I have to say that Redhill is a gifted author with great talent. His prose is incredible; small descriptions of light shining on the water, for example, are so realistic that you can truly see it in your mind's eye. His characterizations are very well drawn and once I settled into the book, it was a true pleasure to read.
There are two stories here. David Hollis, an historian of some local note, has died, a suicide. He leaves behind a wife, Marianne, two daughters and a son-in-law (or fiance -- I'm not sure) John, who was very close to David. As the story opens, the family is dealing with its loss and its grief, each in in his or her own way. Marianne, for example, has taken up in a Toronto hotel overlooking a construction project and will not leave. Her husband had said that he had proof that a steamship had gone down in the 1850s, and that in the wreckage there would be a set of glass plates with a pictorial panorama of the city at the time on them. This wreckage and the plates become his holy grail, but no one was paying attention to him. Now, Marianne is waiting and watching for the construction workers to unearth the wreckage where her husband said it would be, and will not leave until something turns up to prove him right -- or at least until she can get around what kept her husband so preoccupied the last years of his life. Her son-in-law is the only one who will visit or talk to her; he becomes involved in her quest by ferreting out information. But he has his own need to deal with David's loss.
The second story is that of Jem Hallam, who comes to Toronto in the 1850s to start a new life and bring his family business to the area. Leaving his wife & children behind, he soon has to come to grips with who he has become in this new place.
It is a marvelous story, a look at how people deal with loss and grief, each in his or her own way. There is a wonderful plot twist along the way which I never saw coming -- once you get to that point, all is made very clear.
So, who would like this book? Well, I'd think people who are interested in history would like it; people who are interested in the topic of loss & grief would really enjoy it. Anyone who loves good writing should also read this one. I would definitely recommend it.
Booker Prize winner? Probably not; however, it is well worth every second of reading time....more
Another entry on my reading list for March, The Time In Between won the 2005 Scotiabank Giller Prize, which recognizes "excellence in Canadian fictionAnother entry on my reading list for March, The Time In Between won the 2005 Scotiabank Giller Prize, which recognizes "excellence in Canadian fiction." If you're interested, you can read about it here. And imho, this book definitely deserved a prize of some sort.
On the back cover of my copy of The Time in Between there is a blurb from the San Francisco Chronicle saying "A sparse and moving meditation on the burden of war across generations." I couldn't have described it better. As the book begins, Ada Boatman and her brother Jon are in Vietnam to search for their father Charles. He had gone back to Vietnam some thirty years after he was a soldier there to try and deal with his feelings about a certain painful experience while in the army, a part of his personal story his family doesn't know about. He revisited his time in Vietnam in his head after reading a book given to him by a friend and felt compelled to go back. But after some time, his family stopped hearing from him; Charles has seemingly just disappeared. The story has two narratives that ultimately weave together - the story of Charles and his need to return to Vietnam and what he finds there, and then Ada's story, and what she finds when she goes in search of her father.
In literature, sometimes less is more. Bergen's work may be short and rather subdued in parts, but it is powerful and carries real emotion. Charles' story is excellently handed down and his character is drawn neatly so that he becomes real. Ada's story was okay, but not the best part of this novel. In any case, this is another one I'd recommend. People who enjoy reading about the past's pull on the present, or who enjoy novels about Vietnam and its aftereffects on the human psyche may also like this book. ...more
The Sentimentalists is not a long book, but within its 200+ pages, the author examines the relationship between fathers and daughters as welike a 3.75
The Sentimentalists is not a long book, but within its 200+ pages, the author examines the relationship between fathers and daughters as well as friendship and the often intangible and little-understood consequences of war. However, the main theme that carries through all of these topics is the imperfection and frailty of memory -- and the role played by the passage of time and circumstance in how and what we remember.
The basic story follows the narrator, a woman whose father can no longer live on his own. She and her sister take him from his Fargo, North Dakota home, a structure "pieced together from two and a half aluminum trailers and deposited in a lot" to the home of Henry, the father of Owen, a childhood friend, in a small town called Casablanca in Ontario, "just twenty miles from the border of New York." This little town was where the family spent many summer vacations when the narrator and her sister were children, and the group referred to Henry's residence as the "government house," after the flooding of his boyhood home caused by the course of the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the late 1950s. In the present, for reasons of her own, the narrator/daughter has come back to Casablanca to stay with her father, where she attempts to gain some understanding of this man about whom she knows so little -- a man whose complicated and unspoken past in Vietnam interrupted the lives of his family, and who spent years trying to connect back to a more simple, less complicated past and the dreams that were part of it.
The first half of the novel is the basis for the main story, which doesn't really appear until about just past the halfway point of the book, at which point things began to get really interesting. In the meantime, there were several paragraphs scattered throughout the novel that made me have to stop, put the book down, and take some time to parse and mull over what I'd just read. After doing this way too often and getting frustrated at the lack of narrative flow this created for me, it dawned on me that I was seeing the poet rather than narrative writer in Skibsrud, especially in the ways she often opted for a more metaphorical bent:
"Overall, I would have to say that it had come as a disappointment to live within the particularities of a life; to find that the simple arithmetic of things -- which I thought I had learned by rote, but was now unsure from whom, or what is was that had been learned at all was not so simple. That it was not, in fact, combination alone that increased the territory of living in the world. And that love did not, of its own accord, increase with time...And that there was nothing to do when it left you but bite your tongue and wait for its return. As though it were a small bird, which sometimes thought to wing itself across the city -- but would, almost always, thinking better of it, arrive again in a rush, to the sill. Oh, I would have waited like a dog for seven lifetimes for that bird to appear, if I knew that it would continue to come! If I knew that it would continue to look in again with fondness at the small room, which it had thought to leave behind; at a life of knowing; of closeness, and foibles. Of regrets, misdeeds, and small, personal ecstasies."
This is not to say that I didn't like this book -- because I did, especially the last part. It's not that I don't appreciate the beauty of the English language in the hands of talented authors, because I do, but I think this book would be most fully appreciated by an audience inclined to the more complex aspects of the writing craft, quite possibly by people who are writers themselves. As for me, although I always ponder whatever it is I'm reading at the moment, sometimes the reading process in this case was just a bit more work than it needed to be, although I will say that toward the end of the novel, things picked up and became a little more straightforward, using less of the detail that tended to bog down the first half of the novel in parts and less effluvient language. One thing that still puzzles me is that I'm still not sure exactly why the author chose to set up the epilogue of the book the way she did -- it was quite an abrupt change -- but it is what it is. If anyone has figured it out, maybe you can clue me in.
Overall -- it's a fine first novel, sometimes a bit bogged down with what I would consider superfluous detail and metaphor, but one still worth the time you put into it, and one I'd recommend. ...more
As the novel opens, two children are wreaking havoc aboard a ship: leaving blueberry pie on a sofa which was sat on by a retired admiral wearing whiteAs the novel opens, two children are wreaking havoc aboard a ship: leaving blueberry pie on a sofa which was sat on by a retired admiral wearing white, spilling ink on the captain's charts, and throwing salad in the dining room among other nefarious deeds. The crew can't wait to see them disembark and make their way down the gangplank to The Island, located in Canadian waters. They have come to The Island for their summer holidays -- Barnaby is supposed to meet and stay with his uncle there; the girl, Christie, is supposed to stay with friend of the family. As it happens, Barnaby's uncle is not able to make it right away, so Barnaby is sent to room with a childless couple. The two children are the only kids on the island and start their time there making mischief, causing a lot of damage and uproar on the island, and eventually fall under the gaze of The Mountie, Sergeant Coulter. While Barnaby and Christie settle in, Barnaby lets his friend in on a secret: he's worth $10 million dollars and his uncle wants the money and has been trying to kill him. After Barnaby's uncle returns, and Christie sees that Barnaby is telling the truth, she comes up with a plan to save him: she reasons that before his uncle has the chance to kill her friend, they must do away with Uncle.
Let's Kill Uncle is, despite the title, a cute little book, one I probably would never have read had it not been for the fact that a few months back I saw the movie made from this novel in 1966 and wanted to read the story on which it was based. To be really honest, it's a novel I'd never heard of prior to the film (which imho, did not even come close to the novel). There's much more to it than murder; it's also look at the lives of the people on this remote island and the meaning of community. It defies any sort of pigeonholing: at times it seems to be a book for older children -- there's a cougar in the story to whom the author affords human-like thought, for example -- but there's also the inner musings of Sergeant Coulter about his ill-fated hopes of love (in letters he writes to his beloved which he never mails) and his feelings of failure during the second world war, so the audience for the book is a bit unclear. Despite that shortcoming, however, the book is a good read: the author has done a fine job developing a sense of place, good characters --the uncle is a nasty piece of work and a bit mysterious as well, and the other characters on this remote island are a bit quirky, kind of what you'd expect of people who live tucked away here. The story may be a bit antiquated for today's modern readers, but it still manages to drum up some suspense here and there.
This is definitely not my normal reading fare, but I liked it -- not so much for the uncle storyline, but for the stories of the people on the island. It's really tough to pinpoint who might enjoy this book, so I'm not even going to try. Overall, it's a cute little book with a sinister twist. ...more
Captain John Franklin's final mission of 1845 sets the frame for this novel, as he sets sail to navigate the two ships Erebus and Terror through unexpCaptain John Franklin's final mission of 1845 sets the frame for this novel, as he sets sail to navigate the two ships Erebus and Terror through unexplored stretches of the Northwest Passage. However, On the Proper Use of Stars is not just another account of that expedition; instead, it is a very cleverly-constructed novel that moves back and forth between the Arctic and Victorian London, focusing on the lives of the men stuck in the ice while life goes on with Franklin's wife Jane and her niece Sophia back at home. The story is punctuated throughout with various documents from both fronts: pieces of plays, menus, science books , fictional diary excerpts and other fragments of historical texts that help to simultaneously contrast and bring together the two alternating strands depicting these respective worlds.
Despite some ominously-depicted foreshadowings of doom at the beginning of the novel, at first morale seems to be very high about the Erebus and the Terror. Francis Crozier, captain of the Terror, notes that aboard the Erebus, "laughter can be heard from morning to night." Food is plentiful, good progress is being made, and even when the long winter night sets in, the men put on plays, have intellectual discussions and set up classes. Franklin, in the meantime, writes in his journal, which he will leave to his wife for adding the "finishing touches," to make his account of the expedition "worthy of the events." But there are some issues: Franklin and Crozier do not see eye to eye -- Franklin, who enjoys contemporary recognition as a hero, treats Crozier with scorn when he makes suggestions that embody "plain common sense," such as leaving behind the message cylinders as per orders of the Admiralty. Crozier does what he's told but questions Franklin's leadership. Meanwhile, back in London, Lady Jane Franklin with her sister, niece and stepdaughter set off for their own explorations -- first in France, then off to Portugal, Madeira, the West Indies and then the United States, carefully documenting every bit of information about the world she's exploring; while at home, she not only has a busy social life, but spends a great deal of time examining maps of the Arctic, charting various explorers' routes with different colors.
The rest of the novel continues in the same manner, contrasting the two separate worlds of London and the Arctic, reflecting life in both settings and how each group attempts to stave off their respective anxieties as it becomes apparent that there is little hope of a return to England. Crozier dreams of becoming a hero so that on his return he can court and marry Sophia, for whom he had once drawn her initial in a field of Tasmanian stars; Sophia, on the other hand, spends her days attending house parties or other events to escape her boredom, and wonders if she should even marry at all, hardly even remembering Crozier. Lady Jane Franklin, who was ridiculed by other wives while with her husband in Tasmania, finds that she is quite popular with the same women now that Sir John is leading the expedition. She refuses most invitations, but makes sure her weekly soireés show off the wonders she's discovered in her own travels. Her own worries about the failure of the expedition to return fall on deaf ears as Franklin's contemporaries, namely Barrow, Parry, and Ross are certain that "the man who ate his boots" is in no danger, and that "one does not set out to rescue heroes." But unwilling to give up, and refusing to let them "get rid of her like that," she exhausts herself looking for help. Her despondency turns into "will, animated first by anger, which grows from day to day and is gradually being steeped in a muted hatred." While Sophia is busy with the day's appointment schedule, Crozier, getting ready to leave the ship with two dinghies in hopes of rescue for what's left of the ships' companies, is examining the objects that the remaining men have brought out onto the ice -- the "household trinkets" that are "all of England that they will pull behind them, the weight of their country, even if it should lead them directly to their death."
Beyond these two very different worlds, Fortier also includes the Arctic natives, the "Esquimaux," who come across the trapped ships, greeted as a welcome sight by the crew. These "savages" wondered whether the ships had been made their way across the ice or if they'd come from the sky. The Esquimaux were also convinced to come aboard and to take a look inside the ships, and do so expressing a great deal of wonder and surprise. The scene introducing the Esquimaux cleverly follows the script of a play that was staged by the crew, "Journey to the Moon," which underscores a visit to the moon where the customs, society and differences between cultures dumbfound the traveler. And while they are referred to as "savages who live like animals" and are seen as uncivilized among some of the officers, it doesn't take long for Crozier to realize that the Esquimaux likely have the upper hand by taking advantage of the "meager resources offered by this environment."
On the Proper Use of Stars is very different, but very well written. It reveals a unique way of fictionally presenting a well-known moment in history without having to resort to lengthy exposition or unnecessary dialogue to bring the reader back to that point in time. The construction and ongoing juxtaposition of the two different worlds that these people inhabit never allows the story to become dull or boring. The same is true for the characterization as well as the vividly-evoked Arctic settings that start out beautiful and soon lapse into dreadful monotony.
Not everyone will like this book, especially those who prefer a traditional narrative style, and those who like a lot of action in their historical fiction. But if you are up for something new, you might want to give this one a try. The story is familiar yet becomes something entirely different at the same time. ...more
Let's face it, Westerns just aren't my thing, and that includes both books and movies. The most "Western" novel I've read is McCarthy's All the Pretty
Let's face it, Westerns just aren't my thing, and that includes both books and movies. The most "Western" novel I've read is McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses (and The Crossing, which I'm reading now on Kindle). So after I read the blurb on the dustjacket of The Sisters Brothers which called it "an homage to the classic Western," I was a bit afraid to continue on into the novel. But read it I did, and overall it was a well-written story with some funny moments; I've got mixed feelings about this book: it was highly entertaining yet not overly spellbinding -- a sort of Western turned on its head.
The book in nutshell is this: Charles and Eli Sisters are renowned gunslingers, feared far and wide for their viciousness. They both grew up around violence -- their father was a "bad man," and when Charlie would get into a fight, he was in it to the death, unable to "engage in your average fight with fists or even knives." With family members hot for revenge, Charlie soon became outnumbered, and Eli, whose "temper had always been high," eventually began jumping in to help. Soon enough, a fight with Charlie was a fight with both of the brothers, and their reputation was born. They are currently working for a shady figure known as The Commodore, and their job, which Eli swears will be his last, is to find and kill one of the Commodore's sworn enemies, a certain Hermann Kermit Warm. The journey to find Warm takes them from Oregon City to San Francisco not long after gold has been discovered in California, but when they finally arrive at their destination, things take a very different turn than the one they were expecting.
The characters are all drawn quite well. Eli, who narrates the story, declares that he's had enough of this itinerant life ...he says that he just wants to settle down and be a shopkeeper, marry and live a normal, quiet life. He's a nasty killer with a humane streak, childishly enjoying the taste of mint tooth powder and a newly-found appreciation for dental health at one moment or offering sincere pity at appropriate times, but the question here is how this penchant for caring and yearning for a civilized life will play out -- is it real or just wishful thinking? Eli has to be one of the most neurotic characters in this book; actually, Charlie is a close runner up. Now that I think about it, most of the characters the brothers meet have some sort of mental maladjustments in their respective makeups. Charlie is a hard drinker, takes laudanum and morphine, and shoots to make his point; he feels superior to Eli and he has no compunction about stealing, but doesn't like being unfairly accused when he is innocent. At the same time, he and Eli are capable of entering into "clinical" discussions over certain points of morality, which often eases the tension they feel when together and allows them to come to their "truces." But the good characterizations are not simply limited to those of the two brothers --there are a few other people whose hapless backstories can't help but the make the reader laugh. The humor embedded into this novel is one of its best features -- at times it's rather deadpan but sometimes is capable of producing an honest-to-goodness laugh. But there are also times that the reader is taken by surprise when the author gets serious on a sympathy-evoking level; for example, he throws in a luckless prospector who is so far gone that he brews and drinks dirt, believing that it's really coffee.
The story is related in an almost-Victorian style of narrative, complete with some very somber and reflective musings from the characters that afford the story a bit more depth just past the halfway point. The author provides an excellent description of San Francisco during the heyday of California's goldrush, when prices were inflated and some people lived off their hopes and others off of their greed. I only have one real issue with this book: as the brothers enter into various adventures, sometimes the reader can pretty much foresee what's going to happen, taking some anticipation away from a few scenes in the story. I don't really care for predictibility in a story; it's up there with the dreaded miraculous coincidence as far as I'm concerned.
I have to admit that I rather liked The Sisters Brothers. It doesn't have the depth of some novels I've read that kept me thinking for a long time after I'd finished them, but it was very entertaining. Sometimes that's what I look for in a novel, and in that sense, this book did not disappoint. ...more
Far to Go is simply stunning, and I recommend it highly.
Novels about the Holocaust are nothing new, and I got to a point some time ago where I just qFar to Go is simply stunning, and I recommend it highly.
Novels about the Holocaust are nothing new, and I got to a point some time ago where I just quit reading them. Although it is an essential time that should remain as a period to never forget, at some point I got to where a) I felt saturated, having seen many of the same content and literary conventions reappearing again and again and b) I just had to turn away from the emotional toll some of these books brought on. I do have a few on my tbr shelf yet to read (Austerlitz and Panorama to name a couple), but in general I don't make this type of literature my first choice of reading material. Truthfully, had this book not been on the Booker Prize longlist this year I probably would never have picked it up, and as it turns out, that would have been a crying shame. Although it has many of the same elements from other Holocaust literature, there are some fundamental differences I didn't expect in Far to Go that set it apart.
Far to Go alternates between two times and two places: Czechoslovakia on the eve of and during the Nazi invasion and occupation, and modern Montreal. In Czechoslovakia, we meet the Bauer family, an ordinary upper middle-class family, living a normal life: Pavel, Annaliese and their young son Pepik, who is watched over by his nanny Marta. Pavel owns a textiles factory that allows his family to live well. Annaliese, who grew up in Prague, wears the most current fashions, sports "large Greta Garbo sunglasses and fresh red lipstick," and falls well into her social role as wife of a wealthy industrialist. Annaliese has had some tragedy in her life: she lost her baby daughter when she was only three weeks old. It was Marta who took care of her afterwards, and who takes on most of Pepik's upbringing as well. The fact that the family is Jewish isn't a major factor in their lives -- Pavel's self identity is more tied up in his love for his country and pride in his forbears.
But the Nazis begin to roll into Czechoslovakia. As they hear about and witness events by Nazi soldiers and ordinary people being caught up in the anti-Jewish rhetoric, and as the factory is taken over, Annaliese realizes that her family may not be so safe, and begins to try to convince Pavel that it's time to leave. Marta, who is not Jewish, is involved in a secret affair with Ernst, a married man, Pavel's foreman, and good friend to the Bauers. As the Nazis begin to get closer to home, she begins to sense a strange shift in him, one that runs contrary to the Ernst she thinks she knows.
While up to this point the novel employs several familiar components of other Holocaust literature, Pick intersperses a modern-day character in between the ongoing story of the Bauers that keeps this book from becoming like so many others. In Montreal, a woman named Lisa is busy pursuing her life's work, the collection and documentation of stories told by those who escaped the Holocaust as young children thanks to the Kindertransport program. As the Kindertransport Association website notes, this effort began after
"... the atrocities in Germany and Austria, the untiring persistence of the refuge advocates, and philosemitic sympathy in some high places – in the words of British Foreign Minister Samuel Hoare “Here is a chance of taking the young generation of a great people, here is a chance of mitigating to some extend the terrible suffering of their parents and their friends” – swayed the government to permit an unspecified number of children under the age of 17 to enter the United Kingdom. It was agreed to admit the children on temporary travel documents, with the idea that they would rejoin their parents when the crisis was over. A fifty Pound Sterling bond had to be posted for each child “to assure their ultimate resettlement.” The children were to travel in sealed trains. The first transport left on December 1, 1938, less than one month after Kristallnacht; the last left on September 1, 1939—just two days before Great Britain's entry into the war, which marked the end of the program. By that time, approximately 10,000 children had made the trip."
Part of Lisa's work involves letters sent to these children and to those who took them in by the parents left behind; the book actually opens with one of these that will immediately draw in the reader to find out more, and more letters and stories are scattered throughout the novel that could tell the story in their own right.
Lisa explains that the Kindertransport story is filled with ambiguities: while she's found many examples of things having worked out for these relocated children, the bulk of the stories are "cases of trauma and upset." Many of the children arrived speaking no English, to poor families, and have had "everything solid ... pulled out from under them." The addition of this researcher, who admittedly can't always "frame the world in objective terms," as academics are supposed to, and the Kindertransport at the heart of this novel, provides the novel with an added dimension. These elements set it apart from the more conventional aspects of the Bauer family story, as does the novel's end.
Far to Go is a wonderful book. What I appreciated most about this novel was not so much the story itself, but something else that may not seem so obvious as you're reading through it. I came away with this feeling that the book works so well because Alison Pick chose a subject that is important to her, and that although she's going to make some money on this book, in many ways it rises above the simply commercial. While she wants her readers to connect with the period of the Holocaust, there's so much more here than just riding the wave of emotions you feel about that time period to get you through the novel. I may get torched for saying this (and flame away), but sometimes I've spotted this approach in a few books set during the Holocaust. There is a real story at work here -- how the Kindertransport affected those who made it out, those who were left behind, and those who made room for these children in their homes. There are, of course, also the events leading up to the need for its creation. I don't mean to imply that Far to Go is at all clinical in the telling, because the opposite is true -- unless you're cold and unfeeling, the novel will unavoidably tug at your emotional heartstrings. I've often noticed that sometimes the best writing happens when an author is passionate about what he/she writes, and that is definitely the case here.
So go get a box of tissues and have nothing else planned while you're reading this book. You will not want to put it down....more
You know, I'm the first to admit that I'm not very talented in the writing area, so it is really difficult for me to express hoBig Bertha here again.
You know, I'm the first to admit that I'm not very talented in the writing area, so it is really difficult for me to express how very much caught up in this book I became. I'm no literary expert, so I have trouble waxing on about all of things literary experts wax on about, and I think in my case it's pointless and dishonest to even try. I am just an ordinary reader person, willing to say how a book affects me, with no pretensions at all that I'm even on anyone's freakin' radar as some kind of literary expert. However, I do enjoy reading and making comments about what I've read. I don't read to dissect or to find something to sneer at if it's not so good, but rather to learn, to appreciate, and to find something that actually speaks to me about what makes people who they are. I found all of this and more in this book. I'll also say this: If I were a writer, my guess is that I would appreciate that someone lost him or herself in a world I'd created; as a fiction reader, I can only say that it's my highest compliment to a writer. That happened to me here. I loved this book. Bottom line.
Since I'm very short of time today, I'll just link here to the comments I made about this most excellent (imo) book on my online reading journal, not at all a literary blog of course, but rather a hobby I started eons ago to help keep track of my reading life. ...more