Category Archives: Random Reading

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

Other Press, New York, 2009

Won in a give-away.

Dorrit Weger has turned 50.  She finds herself in a small, lovely apartment, where every corner, every space, even inside the closet, is in in range of a closed circuit camera.  This is the Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material.  As a “dispensable”, unloved and un-needed, Dorrit will live out her final days with others, free of financial worry,  as long as she is willing to undergo certain tests and give up vital organs.

Dorrit misses her boyfriend, she missed her house and her dog, but she has no choice in this decision.  The laws and procedures for how she will live out her life after the age of 50 are part of the social structure.

Holmqvist’s novel, skillfully translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy, is a mirror of our possible future.  Cool and calm in language, nothing is overwrought, it all feels like a stroll down the antiseptic white hallways that lead from one space to another in this self-contained community.

The Unit is a subtle, scary book.  With a bit of digging you find  that some  of the “testing” that goes on in the novel  is already happening.  Patients are willing to put themselves in mortal danger for the fees they earn.  It is not hard to imagine a future where those who do not fill societal needs could be put in such situations.   This is speculative fiction at its best.

Other reviews:

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Prairie Progressive

Did I miss your review?

10 Comments

Filed under 42SciFiChallenge, New Authors 2010, Random Reading, SciFi Challenge, SpeculativeFiction

The Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers

The Natural History of Unicorns by Chris Lavers

William Morrow, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

A quirky, fact-filled book that is just exactly what it claims to be.

Chris Lavers traces the history of the Unicorn from ancient Jewish texts, differing translations of the Bible and Greek and Roman writings through to the present-day by digging into ancient writings and drawing connections between the beginning understanding of natural sciences and the diffusion of information throughout the classical world.

Over time people have drawn conclusions about this creature through the amalgamation of fact and hearsay.  Lavers shows how descriptions of  Tibetan Antelopes, Indian Rhinoceros and an animal called a Kiang become a one-horned Ass, and how the Unicorn become an icon in the Middle ages.

Whether you are a believer or scoff at the idea of unicorns and fairies this is a fun and fascinating little book.  And I love the epigraph.

There are two things to avoid when dealing with a legend.  The first is to make too much of it, the other is to disbelieve it entirely.

Harold Mellersh (1967)

4 Comments

Filed under History, Random Reading, Review

Guernica by Dave Boling

Guernica by Dave Boling

Bloomsbury, New York, 2008

Won at LibraryThing.

At the center of this novel is the town of Guernica, a cultural center of the Basque people and the site of one of the first carpet bombing of a town and its civilian population.  At the beginning of World War II the German Luftwaffe, showing support for Franco and his rebel forces in Spain, bombed this small town to bits.  No one knows how many people died.

Boling tells a story of two families from the Basque Country in the western Pyrenees mountains.  The region lies on the border between France and Spain along the Atlantic coast.  The story of the Ansotegui and Navarro families begins in the late 1800’s but most time is spent in the 1930’s focused on the meeting and marriage of Miren Ansotegui and Miguel Navarro.

Boling portrays members of both families with depth and caring and there is almost a touch of magical realism woven throughout the book.  The reader follows many characters through their lifetimes.   Through great detail and lyric language, Boling conveys the rugged landscape and rich history of the region.

Historical figures play important roles, the most obvious being Pablo Picasso.  I found this to be the one awkward layer in the novel but I understand Boling’s desire for Picasso’s presence.  Many people only know the name Guernica because of the artist’s famous mural and the history surrounding it.

Guernica is a wonderful, carefully written novel about an important piece of European history.  It is richly layered, carefully researched and its characters will stay with me for some time.

Boling’s dedication reads: For the victims of Guernica…and all the Guernicas that followed.  For more information he suggests a visit to the Guernica Peace Museum.

Other reviews:

Caribousmom

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6 Comments

Filed under Historical Fiction, Random Reading, Review, WWII challange 2009

Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann

94d71ad6de901a459784b375551434d414f4541 Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Randon House, New York, 2009

Borrowed from the library.

August 7, 1974, was a day that dawned cloudy in New York City.  By the end of the day the great city was changed.  Philippe Petit, a French street performer, had walked a 210 foot wire strung between the yet unfinished 110 story towers of the World Trade Center.  Let the Great World Spin follows the lives of people in the city on that day.   The novel does not revolve around Petit’s actions but is held together by the sense of his being there, somewhere, over everyone’s heads.  The sense that he could fall.

There is Corrigan, a radical Irish cleric trying to help the prostitutes in the middle of the burning tenements of the Bronx.  His brother, Ciaran, who has come to the city to see what holds him.  Tillie and Jazzlyn, mother and daughter hookers living on the streets.   A group of very different mothers who gather to mourn their sons lost  in Vietnam.  Love and grief run through each story, and McCann paints the city vividly in prose.

Gangs of kids hung out on street corners .  Traffic lights were stuck on permanant red.  At fire hydrants there were huge puddles of stagnant water.  A building on Willis had half collapsed into the street.  A couple of wild dogs picked their way through the ruin.  A burned neon sign stood upright.  Fire truck went by and a couple of cop cars trailed each other for comfort.  Every now and then a figure emerged from the shadows, homeless men pushing shopping trolleys piled high with copper wire.  They looked like men on a westward-ho, shoving their wagons across the nightlands of America. From Page 48.

New York felt like that in the seventies,  I spent some time there. McCann places Petit’s walk at the center of the novel and the stories of his characters on either side. Then there is that other day, the day the towers fell, and what that meant to New York and to the country as a whole.  That gaping hole in the center,  the thing that we miss.

McCann is a magician with language and I enjoyed the novel just for that,  but  it felt too jumbled up.  I don’t know, maybe this chaos was completely intentional and I missed something.   I found some characters more true then others, some parts fit, others felt like bits of a jigsaw puzzle crammed where they didn’t belong.  It made me sad.  I wanted to love all of it and I just didn’t.

There is an interview of McCann talking about the novel here.  The award-winning documentary, Man on Wire, about Petit’s walk, is absolutely wonderful.

Other reviews:

Literary License

Reading Matters

4 Comments

Filed under Random Reading, Review

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Rief Larsen

88bc7fb7219462f5937766c5567434d414f4541 The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

by Rief  Larsen

Penguin Press,  2009

An unusual and intriguing book,  The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet is the story of twelve-year-old Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet and his clandestine journey from a ranch in Montana to Washington D.C.  It is a cartographic fantasy, a book within a book,  and a self-contained piece of art.

T.S. Spivet  is “a genius mapmaker” .  He draws maps, charts and graphs,  all the time, of everything.  Patterns of Cross-Talk Before and After,   The Four Components of Adventure, Gracie & Me Play Cat’s Cradle During the Blizzard. It is a compulsion, he has to do it.

Was it all just improvisation on the part of my internal balancing system, or, as I intuitively believed, was there actually some invisible map of the land buried inside my head?  Were we all born with the awareness of everything?  The slope of every hillock?  Every river’s curvature and cutbank, the rise and fall of the chiseled rapids and the glassy stillness of each eddy?  Did we already know the radial shading of every single person’ iris, the arborage of crow’s-feet on every elder’s temple, the ridged whorl of thumbprints, of fence lines, of lawns, and flowerpots, the reticulation of gaveled driveways, the gridwork of streets, the bloom of the exit ramps and superhighways, of the stars and planets and supernovas and galaxies beyond –did we know the precise location of all this but ultimately have no conscious way to access this knowledge? Page 201

Delicate and intricate maps, as well as lists, notes and digressions fill the margins of  this lovely book. It is easy to get lost in them.  They also contain family secrets.  His maps have been printed in scientific publications and sold to museums.  Of course none of these fine publications and institutions realize they are dealing with a child.

Through some secret finagling by his adult mentor T.S. wins the prestigious Baird Award  given by the  Smithsonian Institution.  T.S. must figure out a way to get to Washington on his own.  So he leaves home, hops a train, and ends up spending part of his journey reading a history of his paternal grandmother written by his mother.  This history gives him a better understanding of the family he has left behind. Along the way he meets some interesting characters and has several wild adventures.  When he reaches The Smithsonian he learns things may not always be what they appear.  Even though T.S. has always believed otherwise the world is, in fact, a mystery.

Through loss, self-reflection and self-discovery T.S. learns what is closest to his heart.  I enjoyed The Selected Work, but I found the voice of this twelve-year-old unbelievable and the open-ended multi-layered storyline left me unsatisfied. The beautiful notes and illustrations more than make up for these flaws.

Doing a bit of digging about the author, Rief Larsen, I found that he reportedly managed to win an initial advance of  $1 million dollars.  I wonder if the publishers were searching to fill the void left by the last Harry Potter novel?

This was my second book for the Random Reading Challenge.

Other reviews:

booklit

Literary License

Medieval Bookworm

The Book Catapult

11 Comments

Filed under Random Reading, Review

Serena by Ron Rash

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Serena by Ron Rash

Ecco, New York, 2008

Serena by Ron Rash, an Appalachian poet and O. Henry prize winner, is a mix of Southern Gothic and Shakespearean drama.  A  book I found difficult to read but could not stop reading,  full of cruelty and murder.    I was hooked from the opening paragraph.

When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father’s estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young women pregnant with Pemberton’s child.  She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton’s heart.

Rash sets his  novel during the great depression and frames it around the creation of the Smoky Mountain National Park and the struggle for control of the land and resources on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina.  Pemberton and his new bride, Serena, own territory the Federal government wants for the park and have pledged to strip their land and any land around it they can control before the park is created.

Pemberton is a man of his time, a city dweller, wealthy, greedy and  in thrall to his wife.  He treats his workers callously for, Serena says, “…they’ll work harder if they live like Spartans”.

Serena is a creature of pure avarice, a character from Greek myth, a gorgon , allowing nothing and no one to stand in her way, determined to cut down every tree in these mountains and move on to other forests, other continents.  She soon has control over her husband and the logging camp. She even trains a Berkute,  a Golden Eagle from Kazakhstan to hunt the deadly rattle snakes that live in and around the camp threating the loggers lives, sowing fear and slowing down the harvest of trees.

The bird’s arrival was an immediate source of rumor and speculation, especially among Snipes and his crew.  The men had come out of the dining hall to watch the two boys lift their cage off the flat car, the youths solemn and ceremonious as they carried  the crate to the stable.  Dunbar believed the creature would be used as a messenger in the manner of a homing pigeon.  McIntyre cited a verse from Revelation while Stewart suggested the Pembertons intended to fatten up the bird and eat it.  Ross suggested the eagle had been brought in to peck out the eyes of any worker who closed them on the job…

Rash creates a chorus  of loggers as a back drop to George and Serena’s ambitions and a cadre of corrupt polititians and government agents to help smooth their way, but it is not just the characters and plotting that make Serena such a wonder.  It is Rash’s mastery of language that had me reading long into the night.

The road leveled out a few yards before unfurling downward.  Below in the distance were a few muted clusters of light.  Rachel remembered how a month ago she’d sat before a hearth of glowing coals and listened to Jacob’s breathing, thinking how after her mother had left when Rachel was five there’d been so much emptiness in the cabin she could hardly bear to be inside it, because everywhere you looked there was something that reminded her that her mother was gone.  Even the littlest thing like a sewing needle left on the fireboard or a page turned down in the Sears, Roebuck catalog.  The same after her father died.  But that night a month ago, as she listened to Jacob’s breathing, the cabin had felt fuller than it had in a long time.  More alive too, a place where living held sway more than those dead and gone.

To me, Serena is like a mountain ballad, deep and mournful and also beautiful.   In the end goodness confronts the force of greed and the lust for power.   There is redemption.  Ron Rash has written an American novel that I find absolutely brilliant.

Other reviews:

APOOO Bookclub

Bonnie’s Books

Both Eyes Book Blog

Hey Lady, Watcha Readin’?

If you have read and reviewed Serena please leave a comment so I can add a link to your review.

8 Comments

Filed under Challenges, Random Reading, Review

Random Reading Challenge

RandomReading.01-249x300 Wendy at caribousmom, one of my favorite book blogs, has started a new challenge.  What, you say?  How can I possibly join another one? Read the description.  It fits my reading over the last six months pretty much to a tee.

August 1, 2009 – July 31, 2010

Are you stuck in a rut? Do you always find yourself reading from set lists or feeling committed to reading one book while another book screams at you from your TBR mountain? Has your reading become completely scheduled? If so, the Random Reading Challenge may be just the thing to put the spontaneity back into your reading.

So, I am taking my Goodread TBR list and signing up!  Why don’t you join us?

4 Comments

Filed under Challenges, Random Reading