Category Archives: LiteraryFiction

City on Fire

CoFCity on Fire

by Garth Risk Hallberg

Knopf, New York, New York 2015

Borrowed from SPL.

The last time I was in New York City was during Memorial Day weekend, 1975.  I had travelled there with my boyfriend, Crazy Bob (that is another story), to deliver some furniture for the company he worked for.  We got stuck mid-town, and it took us three hours to get off the island.  I swore I’d never go back.  And I haven’t, even though I miss the museums, the library, St. Patrick’s, Central Park.

I really wanted to dislike City on Fire, what with all the hype and the $2 million dollar price tag but I could not put it down.

I can’t say I loved it, even though there were plenty of times when I believed I did.  It is way too disruptive and difficult a novel for that easy out.  It could have used some editing, but what parts of this massive 900+ novel could have been cut out?  Every messy, multilayered bit feel absolutely necessary to the whole.

New York, a fantastically mythic city, fueled by money, art, crime, drugs and the 1970’s in America.  Heartbroken humans reflected through time as if bouncing off shards of a fun house mirror.  All connected like nodes in Indra’s Net, thrown into darkness and then backlit by explosions of light.

 

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Filed under America, Books, LiteraryFiction

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

1401340873.01._SX140_SY224_SCLZZZZZZZ_Arcadia by Lauren Groff

Hyperion, New York, 2012

Borrowed from my library.  I’ve had this one on my TBR list for a while. I must admit I was a bit nervous about reading it.  The time and place could part of my personal story and, having found Groff’s The Monster of Templeton a bit unbalanced, I wasn’t sure how she would portray this slice of American history.  I needn’t have worried.

Arcadia is Ridley Sorrel Stone’s story.  Known as Bit, born in a van traveling with a caravan of trucks, buses and VWs searching for paradise, this child grows up in a commune known as Arcadia.  Acreage filled with fields and forest and a run-down mansion in upstate New York, lead by musician/guru Handy and overflowing with mid-wives, farmers, bakers and those lost to mind-bending drugs, Arcadia grows and changes along with Bit and his parents, Hannah and Abe.

When Bit closes his eyes, he can see what Abe can see,how Arcadia spreads below him: the garden where the other children push corn, bean seeds into the rows,the Pond. The fresh plowed corduroy fields, workers like burdocks stuck to them.  Amos the Amish’s red barn, tiny in the distance.  The roll of the forest tucked up under the hills.  And whatever is beyond: cities of glass, of steel.  from page 80.

This could have been over the top, but Groff handles it gently, in a kind and balanced way.  Her writing is vivid, both in depicting Arcadia, the falling-down and rebuilt mansion, and in telling the stories of the people who live there .  In reality, not all people living on communes were dysfunctional, some where completely committed to building a new way of living and being.  As Bit grows up and ventures into the “real” world he takes the lessons learned from his parents, his “extended” family and Arcadia with him.

I enjoyed Arcadia, it will be on my Best of 2013 list, and I look forward to reading more from Lauren Groff.  In skimming some comments about this novel on GoodReads, I saw several references to “dirty hippies”.  Can I say that I find this term highly offensive?  Want to talk about it?

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Filed under America, Books, Historical Fiction, LiteraryFiction, Thoughts

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

grossmanThe Magician King by Lev Grossman

Viking Press, New York, 2011

From my TBR pile.  My first book for the Once Upon A Time VII challenge.

I read The Magicians last year and found it just okay.  Early reviews mentioned “Harry Potter for adults”.  The novel is about a New York City teenager, Quinton Coldwater, who while thinking he is  applying for university is  surprised with an invitation to attend Brakesbills College, a kind of ivy league Hogwarts.  Quinton, along with other “Physical” students,  spends years in class, learning spell casting, and enjoying first loves, sex, drugs and drinking.  Eventually several of the students enter the land of Fillory, an “imaginary” place from a series of  beloved children’s book very much like C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia.  Maybe it was the referential use of this classic series that made me a bit squeamish.

I found the second book  much more satisfying.  It centers on two of the characters from the first book, Quinton and Julia, and brings historic depth and clarity to their behavior and their choices.  There is better storytelling, more fantasy, with strong roots in folklore and mythology.  I think Grossman worked hard to bring his characters to life and strengthen the magic.   I am hoping that there will be more books to come because  I’d like to know what happens to these young people.

The goddess was warm, even humorous, and loving, but she had a second aspect, terrible in its bleakness: a mourning aspect that she assumed in winter, when she descended into the underworld, away from the light.  There were different versions of the story.  In some she grew angry at all mankind and hid herself underground half the year out of rage.  In some she lost one of her dryad-daughters and retired to Hades in grief.  In others the goddess was fooled by some Loki-type trickster-god and bound to spend half the year hiding her warmth and fruitfulness in the underworld, against her will.  But in each version her dual nature was clear.  She was the goddess of darkness as well as light.   A Black Madonna:  the blackness of death, but also the blackness of good soil, dark with decay, which gives rise to life.  From page 325.

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Filed under 2013 TBR Double Dog Dare, DarkFantasy, Fantasy, LiteraryFiction, Once Upon A Time VII

Dickens in December (actually it’s January)

great_Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

I read the Amazon kindle edition.

There is Pip, the orphan, “brought up by hand” by his sister and Joe the blacksmith, visiting his parent’s graves  on Christmas eve.  There is the young man in the graveyard. There is a young boy making a choice, the anguish and guilt that go with that choice, and the consequences that occur from it.

Since that time, which is far enough away now, I have often thought that few people know what secrecy there is in the young, under terror. No matter how unreasonable the terror, so that it be terror. I was in mortal terror of the young man who wanted my heart and liver; I was in mortal terror of my interlocutor with the ironed leg; I was in mortal terror of myself, from whom an awful promise had been extracted; I had no hope of deliverance through my all-powerful sister, who repulsed me at every turn; I am afraid to think of what I might have done, on requirement, in the secrecy of my terror.

Pip makes his choice, and it changes his history.  Later there is Estella and, of course, Miss Havirsham, and the fight with the “pale faced boy” in the over-grown garden.  (I cannot wait to see Helena Bonham Carter in that wedding dress).

Great Expectations is a coming of age story that covers the themes of family, class, greed and ambition, touching on human needs and human failing.  It is a story of friendship and of love.  Interestingly, the original ending was different then the one most of us are familiar with.  Charles Dickens changed it because he was told it was “too sad”.

Reading Great Expectations at the time it was first published must have been thrilling and exciting.  The serialization left cliff-hangers,  characterization and description brought the people, class differences and places to life.   Dickens, like Shakespeare, helped to fuel the idea of popular culture, entertainment made available to the masses along with the elite.  Then there is the question of the literacy of the time, how many people of that era could read?

A great book to reread, Great Expectations also has me thinking about the history of popular literature and class.  The next Dickens on my classics TBR list is Bleak House, a book I have not read.

 

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Filed under Books, Classic, LiteraryFiction, Thoughts

Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart

Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart

McClelland & Stewart Ltd., Toronto, On, 2010

From my to-be-read pile.  Long-listed for the 2010 Giller Prize.

I first discovered Jane Urquhart by accident when I picked up “Away” off my library shelves.  I have followed her work ever since.

Sanctuary Line is the story of an Ontario farming family with roots in Ireland.  Liz Crane has returned to the family farm, works measuring the wings of Monarch Butterflies and regularly visits her mother at a place called The Golden Field and finds memories rising every time she picks up an object or looks out a window.

Haunted by the death of her cousin Mandy, Liz finds herself tangled in the stories of her large and varied family.  Drawn to the past, sifting through memories, she slowly discovers a truth that has been hidden for years.

Urquhart is an author whose characters are firmly rooted in the past.   Her novels delve into family histories, family secrets and what brings the past into the present.

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Filed under Books, CanadianBookChallenge6, GillerPrize, LiteraryFiction, Thoughts

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Little Brown and Company, New York 2012

Borrowed from my library.  Nominated for the National Book Award.

Kevin Powers is an Iraq veteran and a poet.  His novel about two young friends fighting together in the second Iraq war is beautifully written.   It is also devastating.

At basic training John Bartle takes Daniel Murphy under his wing and makes a promise to Murph’s mother.  When they reach the city of Al Tafar, John  realizes that the promise may be impossible to keep.

We hardly noticed  a change when September came.  But I know now that everything that will ever matter in my life began then.  Perhaps light came a little more slowly to the city of Al Tafar, falling the way it did beyond thin shapes of rooflines and angled promenaded in the dark. It fell over buildings in the city , white and tan, made of clay bricks, roofed with corrugated metal or concrete.  The sky was vast and catacombed with clouds.  A cool breeze blew down from the distant hillsides we’d been patrolling all year.  It passed over the minarets that rose above the citadel, flowed down through alleys that ringed the city, and finally broke up against the scattered dwellings from which our rifles bristled.  Our platoon moved around our rooftop position, gray streaks against the predawn light.  It was still late summer then, a Sunday, I think.  We waited. From pages 4/5.

Poetic, lyrical and deeply moving, this one will stay with me for a long time.

The Yellow Birds has been compared to All Quiet on the Western Front and The Things They Carried.  It meets and matches them and also reminds me of the importance of reading other books on war.  I would suggest Dispatches On Killing and War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning as a place to start.

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Filed under Iraq, LiteraryFiction, National Book Award, War

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

Harper Collins, New York, 2012

Sent to me by the publisher.   It is not often that I accept books for review as I am always afraid they will get shifted to the bottom of a TBR pile and I will forget to read them, or that I will forget to write and post my thoughts.  When a women from Harper Collins sent an email asking if I would like a copy of Attica Locke’s new book I jumped at the chance.  I read Black Water Rising last year and loved it.

Caren Gray has come back to manage the plantation where members of her family have served, either as slaves or as free people, since before the Civil War.  Belle Vie has been restored to its former beauty,  the tour includes the slave quarters and a rather historically inaccurate re-enactment.  The mansion serves as a location for weddings and parties and provides jobs for local people who have been shut out of working in the local corporate-owned cane fields.  When a murdered woman’s body is discovered on the grounds, it falls to Caren, her ex-husband and a stringer from a New Orleans paper to solve the mystery.

From the beginning the reader knows Caren has come to Belle Vie as a way to escape her past, which is psychologically intriguing because she is returning to the place of her youth.  The job offers stability for her and her daughter, Morgan,  but that stability comes at a cost.  As the murder investigation deepens truths about Caren’s family history and the history of the plantation come to light, and the murderer intends to keep that truth bury, whatever the cost.

The Cutting Season is tightly plotted, the history of this part of the south wrapped in a well constructed mystery.  Locke writes beautifully, somehow folding in painful generational memories, the tension of post civil war plantation life and present day class and racial struggles into a story that never feels like it is carrying deep political and cultural messages.  I found this to be true in Dark Water Rising, Locke has a way of visiting the past, bringing it gently into the present and making it relevant.  I hope this second novel finds a wide audience and look forward to reading her third.

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Filed under Books, LiteraryFiction, Mystery, R.I.P. VII