Category Archives: LiteraryFiction

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt

Random House, New York, 1990

Borrowed from my library. Winner of the 1990 Man Booker Prize.

Another book I waited a long time to read.  I think I was intimidated by the mid-Victorian poetry angle, but I should have known.  It is A.S. Byatt.  Possession is a masterpiece.

A young academic, Roland Mitchell, stumbles upon drafts of unknown letters written by his research subject, romantic poet Randolf Henry Ash.  The drafts hint of a unknown relationship with a young women.  From this tiny hint, Roland discovers a possible link between Ash and poet, Christabel LaMotte and is pulled into a literary mystery that is layered, humorous and massively intelligent.   This novel is a deep exploration of romance,  love and possession.   What those emotions could have looked like in the past and how they can manifest in the present.  It is also a parody of modern academia,  pop culture and the cult of personality.

Complete with love letters and invented verse , Byatt uses the full range of her literary abilities.  Most chapters begin with bits of invented poems, myths or fairy tales.   Her poets, writing in the style of  Victorian romance, use language differently.  At one point she has a young French cousin of Christabel write a journal.  Again, the voice is completely different, drenched in the language of the time and expressing the cultural differences between a young lady raised in England and one raised in France.  I was constantly amazed at A.S. Byatt’s mix of history, literary knowledge and her ability with words.

Possession is also a love letter, to language, to reading and to writing of all sorts.  I was quickly drawn in, found myself moving backwards and forwards in the text, copying words, making notes and fully intend to read this book again.  Roland’s thoughts on re-reading Randalf Hanry Ash’s words discribe something of what I felt reading parts of Possession:

    There are readings – of the same text – that are dutiful, readings that map and dissect, readings that hear a rustling of unheard sounds, that count grey little pronouns for pleasure or instruction and for a time do not hear golden or apples.  There are personal readings which snatch for personal meanings, I am full of love, or disgust, or fear, I scan for love, or disgust, or fear.  There are – believe it – impersonal readings – where the mind’s eye sees the lines move onward and the mind’s ear hears them sing and sing.

Now and then there are readings that make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark – readings when the acknowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or  satisfactorily,  runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognized, become fully cognisant of, our knowledge.  From pages 511/512.

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Filed under A.S. Byatt, British, Historical Fiction, LiteraryFiction, Thoughts

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

Ecco, HarperCollins, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my local library.  A 2011 New York Times Notable book.

I first discovered Russell Banks when a friend and I went to see The Sweet Hereafter.  It was a film that had me wanting to read the book, a rare occurrence.  Since that time I’ve read several novels by Russell Banks and enjoyed them.  There is always an undercurrent of tension that runs through his work, like the hidden currents in a rip tide poised to drag away an unweary swimmer.  He is willing to look at things we often turn  away from.

In Lost Memory of Skin Banks writes of a part of our society we would rather hold distant and separate from our lives.  Under a causeway in a coastal Florida city there is an encampment.  Men convicted of sexual crimes, having served their sentences and been released from prison, live there.  It is the only place in the city that is 2,500 feet from anywhere that children might gather.  Here we meet the Kid, twenty-two years old and just released on parole.   He is camped out with other offenders, a mixed group thrown together in the only place in the city where they can legally live.   The Kid is lost, knows he messed up.  Still a virgin, he’s been charged with a sexual crime through his own stupidity.  He’s figuring things out, trying to learn the rules.

     He  likes the distinction: there’s good and there’s evil.  Evil is worse than bad.  And it’s a lot worse than merely dumb or unlucky or illegal.  That’s what makes God’s rules superior to all other rules: if you break one you’re not just dumb or even bad, you’re fucking evil!  You have knowingly disobeyed God.  To be evil is to be bad in an extreme way – sentenced to life without parole and locked up in hell for eternity when you die.  If you believe in hell, that is.  Which the Kid does although he does not believe in heaven.  Same as with God whom the Kid believes in when things go right but not when things go wrong.  Which doesn’t make him an atheist exactly or an agnostic.  Just inconsistent.  From page 75.

As the Kid struggles with who exactly he is he is approached by a huge man who claims to be a professor wanting to do research on the homeless, on sex offenders.  As they spend time talking we learn some of the Kid’s back story.

Raised by an uncaring mother, left alone to fend for himself, he discovered online porn at a young age.  His only comfort an iguana named Iggy, he soon looses himself to the small screen.  Completely emotionally detached from others, he lives with the “lost memory of skin” that is pornography on the internet.  Time spent talking with the Professor, a man who has his own secrets and compulsions, allows the Kid to gain some understanding of his past as well as some possibilities for the future.   He begins to understand that there may, in fact, be a future.

Now slowly he’s starting to realize that he might not be exceptional but at least he’s important for being who he is, that he’s not really like the mass of mankind from the beginning of time whose entire lives and everything they chose to do or not to do is determined by their givens, the conditions and circumstances they were born into and the people they found there to accompany them in life.  Until now the only living creatures who seemed to care what he did or thought and were therefore affected by his actions and thoughts were Iggy and Einstein the parrot and Annie the dog as if the Kid wer closer to being reptile, bird or four-legged animal then a human being alive and conscious in time with a beginning, middle and end to his life, all three parts existing simultaneously in each separate part.  His subjective life – his accumulated memories, wishes, fears, and reflections in the last few days – ha started taking on an importance to him that it had never held before.  And consequently he’s begun to have a new interest in the subjective lives of the people who are connected with him starting with the Professor but including the men who live alongside him under the causeway.  Even the Shyster whose story up to now he has had no desire to know since he had no story of his own to compare it to.  From pages 225/226.

Russell Banks is willing to shine a light on characters who do despicable things out of ignorance and he offers readers a way to view these characters compassionately.   We live in a culture were we choose to spend a lot of our time online in one form or another, disconnected from reality and plugged into the internet without really weighing the risks of such a choice.  Nothing makes this clearer to me than the growth of online pornography and the complacency that surrounds it.   Lost Memory of Skin is a novel about this culture, about American society in the early part of the 21st century.  It will be in my top 10 list for 2012.

Mr.  Banks states that he often writes about “the unintended consequences of good intentions”.  There is a wonderful interview about the writing of Lost Memory of Skin here.

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Filed under LiteraryFiction, Notable Books, Thoughts

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

McPherson & Company, Kingston, New York, 2010

Borrowed from my library.  Winner of the 2010 National Book Award, on the 2012 Orange Prize longlist.

Somewhere near Wheeling, West Virginia, is a race track called Indian Mound Downs.  There horses run in claiming races and owners, trainers, grooms and jockeys try to grab some luck, win a bundle or just get by.  This is the world of cheap horse racing, violent and often ruthless.  Lord of Misrule follows several characters, and four horses, through a season.

These characters bring their dreams and their histories to the track.  There is Medicine Ed, 72 years old, a groom all his life, with an eye for horses and people and a hidden knowledge of “medicine”.  Tommy Hansel, a man with a plan.   Get in, make a bundle and get out quick.  And Maggie Koderer, Tommy’s girl, working as a groom, wondering how she’s ended up here, where she’s going and falling for horses in a way you know will break her heart.

Her hands felt their way blindly along the ridges and defiles of the spine, the firm root-spread hillocks of the withers.  She rolled her bony knuckles all along the fallen tree of scar tissue at the crest of the back, prying up its branches, loosening its teeth.  And it must be having some effect: when she walked Pelter these days he wasn’t the sour fellow he used to be, he was sportive, even funny.  She walked him this morning until the rising sun snagged in the hackberry thicket…  From Page 25.

Gordon knows these characters, knows these horses, knows this ugly side of the sport of kings.  I  sense that she chose her words very carefully, building a sense of rhythm, sometimes trotting, sometimes galloping.   The men think like animals, the horses act like men and often there is violence and decay buried in them.  This is a dark novel, full of menace and poetry.  I enjoyed it.

Not to long ago I read a startling article about horse racing in the New York Times.  Lord of Misrule reinforces its sad truth.

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Filed under Animals, LiteraryFiction, National Book Award

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

Canongate, New York, 2011

From my local library.  Read as part of Once Upon A Time VI.

Using her own experiences in World War Two as a template, A.S. Byatt retells the Norse myth about the end of the world.

As  bombs begin to rain down on England a “thin child” is evacuated to the countryside. The child tries to make sense of  the world around her, of the difference between the dark, fearful time she experiences  and the peace and love preached in church.  She misses her father, knowing he is flying somewhere over Africa.

The thin child knew, and did not know that she knew, that her elders lives in provisional fear of imminent destruction.  They faced the end of the world they knew.  The English country world did not end, as many others did,  was not overrun nor battered into mud by armies.  But fear was steady, even if no one talked to the thin child about it… From page 4.

Then the child is given a copy of Asgard and the Gods, a book of ancient Norse myths written by Wilhelm Wagner, and she began to understand.  These fascinating, terrifying stories of love, betrayal and revenge help fill in the missing parts of the world.  They seem real and vital, much more real than what adults are telling of the world.

I’ve said it before,  A.S. Byatt is a master story-teller.   She has taken the bitter, violent tales of Thor and Odin, Loki and Balder and given them new life through the eyes of the thin child.  By doing so she renews them for those of us who remember them from childhood or school.  Her language turns dark, dangerous things into creatures of great beauty, even the snake Jörmungandr, a voracious monster who ends up encircling the world, is at times beautiful.  Between sections of myth, the “thin child” begins to find ways to bring the “real” world and the world of the Gods together, and have it make sense.

Byatt connects the myth of the end of the Gods to the horrors of war.  We come to know something of the inner life of a small child living in war-time, of the constant fear that surrounds her, of her questioning.

But the author also connects the myth to the loss and devastation we bring to our world, our home planet.   She tells of the world tree, Yggdrasil, and all the things that live in and on her, even under her.  She even adds the tale of Rándrasil, a huge kelp tree, and the rich sea gardens that lie at her feet.  These passages, filled with a multitude of plants and animals, are an inventory of loss.  The End of the Gods?  Byatt shows us the possible end of so much more.

It is A.S. Byatt’s skill as a writer, her use of language, direct and lyrical at once, that has me in awe.  As I read this small book I wanted to hear the words, to be read to.  Maybe someone has created an audio version.  Regardless, this is a book I will add to my personal library.

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Filed under A.S. Byatt, LiteraryFiction, Mythology, Once Upon A Time VI, Thoughts

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

The Free World by David Bezmozgis

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011

From my library hold list.

A debut novel that takes place in Rome in 1978, a time when families of Russian Jews were passing through a gap in the Iron Curtain.  The city was  filled with immigrants waiting for visas to their chosen destination.  For three generations of the Kranansky family what begins as a journey to America ends up, after six months of waiting,  as a journey to Canada.

There is Alex and his brother Karl, Alex’s new wife Polina and Karl’s wife Rosa and their two sons who, along with grandparents Emma and Samuil, have traveled from Latvia to Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and Vienna finally arriving in Rome.  Samuil is the one causing the delay.  A former Red Guard, he suffers from many ailments, and Canada is not taking any invalids.  Israel might, but that is not an option for Samuil, or for Karl and Alex.    As the novel unfolds we learn some of the back story for all of these characters but the most enjoyable parts for me was the experiences within and around the migrant community in Rome.

Praised by the New Yorker as one of the best “20 under 40”, Bezmozgis is expert at the portrayal of loss while maintaining a balanced sense of humor.  And we see the hopes and dreams these people carry with them into their new lives.  Somewhat autobiographical, this author truely loves his characters.  Parts of the novel drifted out of focus for me but on the whole I enjoyed it.  I plan on reading the author’s collection, Natasha and Other Stories, sometime in the near future.

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Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, Historical Fiction, LiteraryFiction, Thoughts

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Reagan Arthur Books, New York, 2012

From my library hold list.   It is my first book for Once Upon A Time VI.

The story of a couple who leave a comfortable life in Pennsylvania and travel to Alaska to homestead.  In the 1920’s this is no easy task and Jack and Mabel struggle to build their life together, all the will filled with the memories of the child they lost.  The hard work of survival and their loss has driven a wedge between them and the joy and close feelings they once had for each other has hardened in the struggle.

Woven into this story of struggle and survival is the fairy tale called The Snow Child.  One evening, as the first snow falls, Jack and Mabel find themselves outside tossing snowballs and laughing together for the first time in quite a while. They build a snow child, even adding mittens and a scarf.  Afterwards, warming in their cabin they feel tender and loving for the first time in ages.  In the morning the snow child is gone but leading from the collapsed pile of snow are footprints, and Jack thinks he sees a young child running through the woods.

Jack and Mabel struggle with their thoughts and dreams.  Has the desire for a child driven them to madness or is this girl glimpsed running through the woods real?

     She had sought reasonable explanations.  She asked Esther about children who lived nearby.  She urged Jack to inquire in town.  But she had also taken note of those first boot prints in the snow – they began at the vanished snow child and ran from there into the woods.  No tracks came into the yard.  from page 87.

From this beginning the story evolves into one of mystery and what seems like magic.  Realistic in its depiction of life in 1920’s Alaska and of the people who settled there, bound by hard work, friendship and love, this is a charming novel told in crystal clear language.  The way Ivey  weaves together history and fairy tale was for me a new and exciting experience..

 

 

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Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden

Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden

Viking, New York, 2009

From my library hold list.  Winner of the 2008 ScotiaBank Giller Prize.

A follow-up to Boyden’s first novel, Three Day Road, this book tells the story of a Frist Nations family through the voices of two members.

Will Bird, a bush pilot with a wild past, lies in a coma in the hospital in his home town, Moose Factory, Ontario.  His niece Annie, after returning home from a journey she took to Montreal and New York in search of her sister Suzanne, sits by his bedside.

In his dreams Will revisits his life and tells Annie of the distant and recent past.  Having been told that talking to her uncle may help him recover, Annie tells him stories.  She tells of her memories growing up, of her journey in search of herself and her connections to her family.  As each of these wounded souls reveals their past a story grows, of history, of betrayal and of resilience.

Boyden writes with humor and with a deep  understanding of the hidden nature of places and of people.  In the end this is a story of forgiveness, of family and of self.

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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.

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

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

Vintage, New York, 2001

From my TBR pile.  On the short list for the 2000 Booker prize.  I am reading along with Wendy’s Literary Novels from my Stack personal challenge when I can.  February is Man Booker Prize Month.

An elegant novel about memory, When We Were Orphans is a slow, controlled and engaging mystery.

Christopher Banks, this novel’s first person narrator,  is a famous detective in London.  Orphaned at a young age, sent from Shanghai to England, his one desire is to become a great detective.  Cool, reticent and self-controlled, he attains his goal, all the time remaining distant from those around him.   Twenty years later he is determined to return to the Shanghai and solve the case of his parents’ disappearances.  When he does return to the far east things are not at all how he remembers them.

Banks holds himself at a distance, from the reader,  from friends and from colleagues.  He does not allow life’s possibilities to distract him from his goal.  He lives at a remove, from his emotions and his personal history.  This gives the novel a chill, it feels like a ghost story.  In fact it is haunted, by Christopher’s past, his missing parents, the intrigues of early twentieth-century Shanghai.

I found When We Were Orphans difficult in places, maybe because I found it hard to empathize with Christopher Banks.  It will not be my  favorite Ishiguro novel, but I am continually awed by his style, use of restraint and use of language.  He is one of those authors who constantly surprises me and I plan to read all of his work.

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Filed under Booker, Historical Fiction, Kazuo Ishiguro, LiteraryFiction, Thoughts

Shards by Ismet Prcic

Shards by Ismet Prcic

Black Cat, New York, 2011

From my library hold list.

A young Bosnian, Ismet Prcic, has left his home, his family and his war-torn country to make a new life in Southern California.  But it is not what he expects.  When he hears a car backfire he dives for cover.  He has flashbacks at the strangest times.  He falls in love and misses his mother.  He remembers the war.

Advised to write “everything” he builds a great pile of pieces, descriptions of his life, letters to his mother, memories of home, bits of the past and the present.  And then Mustafa appears.  Is he a construct, someone Ismet has created to distance himself from the war?  Or is he real?

These are the shards that make up this unusual and disturbing novel.  At time a difficult read because of the many bits and pieces, Shards is almost blinding, reflecting life in a war zone, life as an immigrant, and the sometimes mind-bending qualities of memory.

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Filed under Bosnia, LiteraryFiction, Review, War