I don't think it's fair to give a star rating to this book when I'm so torn. Maybe a 3, I don't know -- I'm not a big critical reader, more on the cas...moreI don't think it's fair to give a star rating to this book when I'm so torn. Maybe a 3, I don't know -- I'm not a big critical reader, more on the casual side, but this book has some issues.
I have a longer entry about this novel at my reading journal, where I do a plot summary as well as what's written here, so click if you want that, hang here if you don't.
To be very honest, I'm sort of torn in my reaction to this novel. There is quite a bit about this novel to like - but it also has its down side, which is why my reaction is sort of muddled here. I'll start with the positives.
I was very much taken with the family history being so prevalent throughout the story. Cordelia, for example, often turns to Brumwitt's paintings that she's so carefully studied -- Woody once told her that the "history and the future" of the family were to be found in Brumfitt's paintings; he'd "painted all of the memories of Loosewood Island, even the ones that hadn't happened yet." At one point in the story, she even references a painting during a radio call for help to describe a situation she doesn't want everyone listening to know about. This same technique is used by the author at various important points where the paintings mirror what's happening, helping to move the action along so that he doesn't have to spend a lot of time describing what's going on. I also liked how he incorporates the tourists who have at some point decided to stay on the island who have set up a community of artists, and the "Brumfitt walks" that people can take. Another positive aspect of this novel is the closeness of this community of long-time island regulars who now find themselves being invaded by contemporary issues that are encroaching upon the way things have always been on the island -- the modern meth trade for easy money that substitutes for the traditional hard-work ethic, the arrogance of the seasonal tourists who build their houses and complain about the lobster boats blighting their ocean view, lobster poaching, and outsider views on lobster fishing that pits money against sustainability. Then there are the characters in the Kings family. The sisters have their spats, which is realistic; I was most especially drawn to Woody for his ability to reign in his daughter when she got too uppity and gung-ho, and to Cordelia for sticking up for herself, for the value she places on family history and tradition, and because as scrappy as she is, she ultimately ends up not coming across as some one-sided tough-as-nails person who captains her own lobster boat.
Now for my issues: In the first part of the book, where the author introduces the family's mystical lore, the island's history, and the Kings girls during their childhood, the writing is just so good, flowing very nicely and sucking me right into the story. I remember thinking at page 84 that if the rest of the book is written like this, I knew I was going to love it. Alas - we not too much later take a turn into sheer melodrama, centering on the drug dealer who came back to the island after his father died. When some of the locals get wind that he's on the island, not fishing but dealing meth, they take care of him in their own way. Add to this a murder subplot involving a showdown at sea, and the combination of the these scenes left me surprised at how much the book's tone had changed and had become reminiscent of a western movie or modern-day vigilante flick. The change highlighted for me the overall inconsistency in the writing. And while I was really into the Kings' family relationship, and wanted them to turn out well, the ending got plain sappy. Plus, let's get real: the whole King Lear thing just didn't come across as well as it might have.
I'm really torn on this one. For the most part, I liked the people in the Kings family, I was taken with the idea of this small, closely-knit island community facing some tough issues and changes coming from the outside. I didn't even mind the more fantastical elements built in to the novel's beginning, although one later instance in particular came across as a little too far-fetched to be taken in stride as just another moment of magical realism. It's just that the unevenness of the writing got to me after a while and left me kind of shaking and scratching my head. I'd tentatively recommend it based on the positive aspects mentioned above, and I will say that even though this book may not be a favorite of mine for this year, I'm still going to pull out my other novel by this author (Touch) and give it a try.(less)
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 q...moreFar 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.(less)
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...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 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. (less)
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 unexp...moreCaptain 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. (less)