Category Archives: TBR Double Dare

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie – Book 1

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Random House, New York, 2006

From my TBR pile.

I am taking part in a read-along organized by Mrs B, Arti andMeredith.  We are taking four months to read the book that won the Booker of Booker’s prize twice.    After reading Book One, I wanted to jump ahead and continue reading but decided to take the time to digest the first section.

In our den we have several wall hangings, presents from a friend who visited India and Nepal.  They are made up of pieces of cloth and imbedded with bits of mirrors.  When the sun hits them they bounce light all over the room.

Midnight’s Children is a book made of words like bits of  mirror, reflecting the time before and after India gained independence from Britain and was partitioned into the states of India, West and East Pakistan.  The story is told by Saleem Sinai.  Each evening he writes his scattered thoughts and reads them to a woman he works with, Padma, who is illiterate and seems a bit grumpy and slow-witted.  It is Padma who helps bring Saleem’s thoughts into focus as he recalls his family history from the time before he was born.

Midnight’s Children reminds me of a twisted version of 1000 and One Nights, a comparison I’m sure the author is tired of,  and I love it.  Rushdie’s mix of tumbling language, history and magical realism is like looking through a kaleidoscope, where the image is split into a thousand parts but somehow comes together beautifully.

Book One covers the story of Saleem’s family up until the time of his birth, August 15th, 1947, which is also the exact time of the creation of the independent State of India.  By telling his story Saleem also tells of India’s struggles for independence, the bigotry between classes and religions and the lasting impact of the British Raj.  All this is told with grace,  humor and a burning coal of anger at its core.  Anger at the thick-headed greed of politicians, thieves and governments.

I find it difficult expressing  my admiration for Salman Rushdie’s abilities with language, with story-telling.  I can not wait to move on to Book Two.

11 Comments

Filed under Booker, Historical Fiction, India, Read-Along, Salman Rushdie, TBR Double Dare

Blackmoor by Edward Hogan

Blackmoor by Edward Hogan

Simon & Schuster, London, 2008

From my TBR pile.

Vincent, an awkward, bird-watching teenager treated badly by his father, lives in a town a few miles from the place where he was born.  That place, Blackmoor,  no longer exists.  As Vincent grows curious about his family history he discovers deeply buried secrets, about himself, his Mother, and the village of  Blackmoor.  The story,  told by an unnamed omniscient narrator,  moves back and forth in time and slowly reveals the truth.

This is a book I devoured.  The sense of mystery and menace grew to a point where  I just couldn’t put it down.  At its heart is the fate of British coal mining during the Thatcher years, the devastation wrought on a place and its people.  And Hogan writes beautifully.

Vincent sits in the rain-speckled ocher dirt and Leila joins him among the broken teeth of the bridge. The indigo rain clouds have tinted the sun and improved visibility.  With the enduring drift of rain, the light has taken on a sourceless clarity, and from this height Vincent can see the brown whorls on the underside of Piano’s light wings.  Her colours make it seem like she has been peeled from the rock of the quarry.  She does not move those long straight wings, or the elegant `fingers’ at their ends.  Instead, she tips dips and tilts as her two charges swoop clumsily down on her like pieces of tumbling flint.  From page 50.

In 2009 Blackmoor was awarded the Desmond Elliott Prize for new fiction.  As far as I can tell this novel has not been published in the United States.  I hope that is remedied soon.  I am now waiting for Hogan’s second novel, The Hunger Trace, to be published in paperback in the UK.  It is on my wishlist.

5 Comments

Filed under British, ContemporaryFiction, TBR Double Dare, Thoughts

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011

From my library hold list.  Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize.

Tony Webster has reached retirement.  His marriage ended in an amicable divorce and he is ready to enjoy his later years when, out of nowhere, his past comes to meet him.

Before reading The Sense of an Ending I had only read one novel by Julian Barnes, Arthur & George.

This new one it is very different, one that I wanted to read in one sitting and, when finished, knew I wanted to read again.  It is elegant, sometimes funny and always disturbing, offering insights into youthful mistakes, loss and memory.  It is a mystery, deeply emotional and psychological.  It feels true.

I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another.  How could we not, except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbors, companions?  And then there is the question, on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it, and how this affects our dealings with others.  Some admit the damage and try to mitigate it; some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and then there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless and the ones to be careful of.  From page 48.

What Barnes tell us is that what may save us is telling each other what we think is the truth, what we think we know.  This is a beautiful, devastating novel.  I do want to read it again.

It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old we invent different pasts for others.  From page 88.

25 Comments

Filed under Booker, British, LiteraryFiction, TBR Double Dare, Thoughts

Crow Country by Mark Cocker

Crow Country by Mark Cocker

Vintage Books, London, 2008

From my TBR pile.

Mark Cocker is not a biologist or any kind of scientist but he was introduced to the mysteries that are rooks at young age and has been fascinated by Corvids ever since.

One evening, near his home in Norfolk, England, he watched a massive, ear-shattering gathering of rooks and jackdaws on the way to their roost.  From that point on they became an obsession and he traveled the length of England in search of them, trying to find answers to why they gathered and where they choose to roost.  Interspersing his travels with poetry, historic journal entries and scientific research, he wanders his home territory, fascinated by these birds.

Cocker’s writing is poetic prose, layered with feeling and deep thought. It is the kind of “nature” writing that stops me, makes me really think about my own assumptions, about what I “know”.

You may ask, how could the rook have subverted my whole approach to birds?  The answer starts, like birding itself, with the business of identification.  You can’t proceed with an interest in ornithology unless you are able to identify the creatures you observe.  Identification itself hinges upon breaking down a bird into its constituent parts – the primaries, wings, tail, head, legs, etc.  Having deconstructed it into this detailed feathered map, one can then attach a specific name to the suite of observed features.  In a sense the issue of the rook’s flocking instinct was previously important to me only as a characteristic allowing me to recognize the bird.

I have come to recognize that even this exercise carries within it a subtle kind of complacency, a curious intellectual sleight of hand, because every time you pin a label on a living creature it reaffirms a sense of mastery over it.  The naming of the thing gives you the wonderfully reassuring illusion that you know it.  You don’t.  Sometimes all you have is a single datum.  The name.  In a bizarre way, the process of recognition can actually be a barrier rather than a doorway to genuine appreciation.  From page 39.

This is  nature writing at its best, filled with facts and history, featuring beings that have lived with and haunted humans for centuries.  It is also a reminder that the earth is not just ours.  It is a place  shared with a multitude of other creatures.  If we wish to lead full and joyful lives, we must value our connections to them

15 Comments

Filed under Birds, Corvids, Natural History, Review, Science, TBR Double Dare

Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam

Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam

Other Press, New York, 2011

From my TBR pile.  I first read an excerpt of Lamb in Harper’s last summer and was completely drawn in by Nadzam’s writing.

David Lamb’s life is falling apart.  His marriage is over, his father has died and he is in danger of losing his job because of  an office affair.  Then, while sitting in a parking lot, a young girl approaches him on a dare.  This is eleven-year-old Tommie, bumbling and awkward and, Lamb thinks, a to change his life.

At first it seems  Lamb truly wants to help Tommie, to offer her the things he feels are missing from her life. Then, when he decides to take her on a road trip to a cabin in the west, the reader has to question his motives.

Dear girl, how could she not carry Lamb with her, all the grassy fields he painted hanging between her little face and the world, bright screens printed with the images he made for her: flashes of green and silver; huge birds circling in the wind; the wet brown eyes of a horse; yellow eggs on a breakfast dish; the curve of their backs on a weathered rail fence on a cool blue morning.  From page 36

This pair, so awkward and needy, make it hard to stop reading and yet the possibilities are terrifying.   Lamb’s lies become clear but is he lying to Tommie or to himself?  Does it matter? Nazdam’s writing surrounds her characters, covers their emotional dysfunction and manipulation with layers of beauty.

A stunning, morally ambiguous novel,  Lamb is dangerous and difficult book.  It will be on my 2012 favorites list.

10 Comments

Filed under LiteraryFiction, Review, TBR Double Dare

Seed by Rob Ziegler

Seed by Rob Zielger

Night Shade Books, San Francisco, 2011

From my library TBR list.  With a recommendation from Paolo Bacigalupi, author of The Windup Girl, I wanted to read this one when I first saw it on the Night Shade Books website.

At the beginning of the 22nd century most of the United States has become a dust bowl, ravaged by violent waves of unpredictable weather.  Migrants, ragged and hungry, travel from place to place, on foot or in rigged-up vehicles,gathering Seed from government depots and hoping to find a place to grow and harvest a crop, enough food to last until the next harvest, never knowing when that will be.  They are swayed by prairie saints and harassed by La Chupacabra, a gang of violent thieves.

Seed is bio-engineered and precious, marked by a tiny barcode.   Made by Satori, a living,  growing animal of a city, controlled by the Designers, and genetically coded to be sterile,  it is the only source of food available, and the Government struggles to control  it.  Satori’s Designers, bio-engineered themselves, have minds of their own and have created modified humans as laborers and security forces.  And there is Tet, a deadly virus slowly spreading through the population.

Ziegler has written a dystopian western, filled with shoot-outs and clipped dialogue.  His use of imminent climate change and terminator technology turns this first novel towards speculative fiction.  It is messy, violent and I found it a quick, disturbing read.

2 Comments

Filed under 2012 Speculative Fiction Challenge, Review, Sci-Fi Experience, SciFi, SpeculativeFiction, TBR Double Dare

Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman

Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman

Picador, New York, 2008

From my TBR stack.  On the short list for the 2009 Orange Prize.

It is difficult taking a piece of history and turning it to fiction.  Helen Feldman has done that by taking a racial motivated  event from 1930’s America and using it to create a powerful historical novel.

In 1931 nine black teens ranging in age from 12 to 19,  jump a train traveling from Tennessee to Alabama, end up in a brawl with some white men and are accused of raping two white women.  The arrests and subsequent trials of the Scottsboro Boys drew national attention.

Scottsboro is told in two voices.  One, Alice Whittier, a reporter from New York City sent to cover the initial trial, is a whip-smart, well-educated white women from New York City with a trust fund. Distanced from her family and involved in a sexual relationship with her boss she is thrilled to be offered the story.  The other, Ruby Bates, is one of the accusers, manipulated by her “friend” Victoria Price and considered “poor white trash” by members of her own community.

The case is a magnet for the national media and for the Communist Party who hope to recruit more members from the south.  The C.P. sends lawyers from International Labor Defense to stand as defense attorneys for the accused.

Knowing some of the history of this case, including the fact that the crimes did not occur, does not detract from Scottsboro.  Feldman includes many of the  actual participants in her novel, using quotes from articles, reports and interviews as epigraphs for each chapter.  She gives voice to the politicians, reporters,  lawyers and defendants.

Ruby and Alice are central to Scottsboro but historical elements of the 30’s America add strength to the novel.  The descriptions of Jim Crow lynchings,  prison environments , the rampant racism, anti-Semitism and sexism pervasive throughout the country and the political maneuvering by the courts, the government and the Communist party are woven throughout and, for me, add to the sense of historical truth.

Feldman also includes other pieces of 1930’s American  history.  The depression, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Hooverville and The Bonus Army all have a place here.  Alice tells the story from the future, reflecting on all that has happened to the country, to the 9 defendants, to Ruby and in her own life since that fateful train ride from Chattanooga.

I enjoyed this novel and would like to read more about Scottsboro, including  Remembering Scottsboro by James A. Miller and Stories of Scottsboro by James E. Goodman.

3 Comments

Filed under Historical Fiction, OrangePrize, Review, TBR Double Dare