Category Archives: Review

Bohemian Girl by Terese Svoboda

Bohemian Girl by Terese Svoboda

Bison Books, Lincoln and London, 2011

Borrowed from my library.

I was introduced to  Bohemian Girl on Shadow, Knife, Pen… and was intrigued by Svoboda’s  connections to Willa Cather and the fact that she stole the title of Cather’s famous story for her novel.  That said, Svoboda had me with the first sentence.

Pa lost me on a bet he could not break, nor would, having other daughters to do for, and other debts besides.

Twelve-year-old Harriet is given to a Pawnee Indian to settle a debt.  Hobbled at the ankles  she carries sand and stone, a slave forced to build an earthen mound.  Eventually she escapes and sets off to find her father running into strange characters along the way.   What a voice this girl has, stumbling through the dark history of the American West,  searching for her Pa.

 I have no fear now.  The Indian gave me so much fear at the end, it came in buckets until I have no choice but to drink it down and be Bohemian.

I walk right into the blue of this country’s sky, the color of the glass that Bohemians keep one or two bottles of in every house.  If I had any sense I would change my skin and clothes to this blue so no Indian could find me, new or old.  I could be a walking blue and lost to the eyes of all…  From pages 32-33.

It is the 1860’s,  a time in American history rich with the horrors of the Civil War,  the uprooting and slaughter of Indian tribes.  Harriet finds herself wandering east, ends up with an orphaned boy and is rescued from prison by a pair of balloonists.   She stumbles into a small town and abandoned by her fellow travelers ends up the owner of  a small mercantile,  befriends a Jewish peddler and hides run-away slaves.  And always tries to hold on to her past as the dark, wild country changes around her.

In Bohemian, there is a word for the air quivering over ripening cherry trees at noon.   On my tongue tip.  How I long for those trees or even an apple or a plum.  I stop sanding my ankle with river bottom mud and hold still, sure the Bohemian words will arrive.  From page 116.

It is hard not to keep quoting from Bohemian Girl, it is a strange and lyrical book.   I loved it,  and I am glad to have been introduced to Svoboda’s writing.


Filed under Historical Fiction, Review

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak

Bellevue Literary Press, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.  A finalist for the 2011 National Book Award.

After a horrible accident in a mining town in the wilds of  Colorado,  Jozef Vinich, and his father Ondrej, return to Pastvina,  Ondrej’s tiny home village in rural Austria-Hungary.  After remarrying, a relationship that turns ugly, Ondrej takes to the mountains as a shepard.  Over time he teaches Jozef, and his adopted son Zlee, how to track and how to shoot.

When war comes Jozef and Zlee are made sharpshooters, hunting men like animals, trying to survive the trenches and eventually making a trek across the Italian Alps.  Told from Jozef’s point of view, this novel reads like a memoir.  It is a love story and a war story, harsh and filled with history.

If, when we, a lost looking father and his reticent son, first arrived in Pastvina in 1901, the people of our village had heard or whispered among themselves tales of prospecting and silver – gunfights and murders – of the Wild West, stories they should expect a man who had seen the world to weave with suspense and nostalgia in their presence, they were soon forgotten, for there seemed nothing about Ondrej Vinich’s attitude or demeanor (against that fiery young man intent on leaving Pastrina to make his fortune) to suggest he’d ever lived one of these storied lives, but in fact seemed content and almost grateful to have to take up what was the loneliest existence a man could live in that part of the old country.  Which is strange when I think about those villagers and how they seemed to cling to one another and yet blame one another for the harsh lot from which not one of them could escape.  From page 28.

The whole of summer, battle raged, the bloody stalemate of attack and counter attack proving ineffective for all but the winnowing of souls, so I came to believe that our stand there on the Soca could not survive, and I wondered more darkly in the back of my mind if we – our empire, our army, the land on which my father had taught me, too, how to survive – had been abandoned by the emperor’s God for some sin long forgotten or even unknown to those of us sent to atone for it, an atonement Zlee and I were yet kept from by the simple fact that we were a more useful tool kept alive, though all it would take was for one of us to be hit by a shell, or brought down by something a simple a dysentery, and the other would be useless and so sacrificed. From page 90.

Do you see?  Wild tumbling sentences like water rushing down a mountain side.  Once I started reading The Sojourn I could not put it down.  Fierce, engaging and charged with emotion, written in a style I found stunning, this will be one of my favorite books of 2011.


Filed under Historical Fiction, National Book Award, Review

Cool Water by Dianne Warren

Cool Water by Dianne Warren

Harper Collins, Toronto, 2010

From my TBR pile, this novel won the Governor General’s Prize for Fiction in 2010 and was long listed for the Giller Prize.

The novel takes place in Juliet, a  small town on the edge of the Great Sand Hills of Saskatchewan. Cool Water tells overlapping stories of a day in the lives many of the towns inhabitants.  It reminds me a bit of Olive Kitteridge.

The characters are unpretentious, their stories are quiet and most are unaware of how they entwine, interlock and deeply affect each other.  Warren writing is spare and understated, very evocative of place.  I would like to read more of her work.


Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, ContemporaryFiction, Review

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Bloomsbury, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library. Winner of the 2011 National Book Award for fiction.

I first read about Salvage The Bones on Caribousmom’s blog and was so intrigued that I put it on hold at the library right away.  When I started reading this novel and remembered that dog fighting played a part I wasn’t sure I could continue.  I was drawn in by the main character,  Esch, fifteen and pregnant, by her family, by their love for each other, by their need to hold on to each other and their will to survive.

Hurricane Katrina is baring down on the coastal town of Bois Savage and its inhabitants.  Black and white, rich and poor, people are preparing to stay or to evacuate.  All Esch’s brother, Skeetah, can think about is laying in supplies for his pit bull, China, and saving her litter of puppies.  Her father is panicking, her other brothers, Randell and Junior, are trying to help and Esch is struggling with the realization that she is pregnant and that the child’s father doesn’t give a damn about her.

Running through this drama is Esch’s love for Greek myths, particularly for the story of Medea.

In the middle of the dead circle, the boys snapped like the air before a storm.  Skeetah and China stood at the edge.  The boys arguing rises to an angry buzz, and the air that had been still before swoops and tunnels through the clearing, raising dust, making the boys close their eyes.  Maybe Daddy is right;  maybe Katrina is coming for us.  Big Henry covers his nose with his rag.  Did Medea bless the heroes before they set out on their journey?  Did she stand on the deck of that ship like I stand in this clearing, womanly ripe, and weave spells for the rain to cloak their departure, to cloak her betrayal?  Had Jason told her he loved her?  Manny holds Kilo’s leash and stares at China.  Skeetah and China do not move.  From page 163.

Jesmyn Ward grew up on the Mississippi coast and her writing is filled with observation about that environment,  giving a sense of place to Esch’s thoughts, even in times of great stress.  And Esch’s family is woven into all she thinks, all she does.

There are no chattering squirrels, no haunted rabbits, no wading turtles in the woods.  I don’t know where they have gone, but there are none here.  When I look up into the sky, the grey of it shaking as I run, I see birds in great flocks that would darken the sun if we could see it through the thickening clouds.  They are all flying away, all flying north.  The flocks break and dip and soar, and they are Randell’s hand on a basketball, Skeet’s on a leash, my legs in a chase.  I watch them until they vanish past the trees, and then there is only us, the woods, the leaves rattling underfoot.  Vines catch my arms, my head; we tear through until we break out into the clearing before the fence, the field, the barn, the house, and I drop to my knees, and Randell leans back as if he would fall, both of us breathing hard, looking wet and newly born.  From pages 206/207.

Ward’s writing is clear, sharp-edged and pulls no punches.  There is abusive sex and there is violence.  At times I wanted to stop reading but found I could not.  This novel’s lyrical beauty is mixed with harsh reality.  The reality of poverty in a country where most would like to ignore that poverty’s existence.  Salvage the Bones will be one of my favorites books of the year.


Filed under LiteraryFiction, Review

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.

The second volume in the proposed Ibis Trilogy, River of Smoke, is a fine follow-up to Sea of Poppies.  Amitav Ghosh dug deep into original sources for these novels and I was overwhelmed by the amount of background into the growing and transport of opium that the author crammed into that first book.  River of Smoke  continues  this trend  by following the history of the opium trade between India and China in the early 1800s.

The story follows some of the characters from the first book’s study of politics, culture and production of  opium on the plains of India as they sail to Canton, China, where the British East India Company is importing more and more opium and the Chinese are beginning to demand an end to the opium trade.

Ghosh paints a detailed portrait of early 19th century Canton. The area known as  Fanqui-town, a small walled enclave populated by an assortment of traders from all over the world, is where most of the novel takes place.  There are many ships anchored in Canton harbor, sometimes so tightly packed you can walk between them.   Some foreign ships carry trade goods, most carry opium.  Small boats travel out to these ships and haul opium to shore, others serve food and offer other “pleasures”.  The scene  Ghosh creates with his use of many languages, descriptions and dense writing is of a great open-air market filled with human activity,  sounds,  tastes, smells and the dreamy funk of opium.

What I found most fascinating about this novel is the politics of the opium business.  How the British desire for tea first started their trade with China, how the rise of opium imports fed a  growing riches for  England, India and many Chinese merchants, and how the west reacted to the China government’s demand for an end to the opium trade.  This led to a cry for Free Trade and the force of the law of “civilized nations” that is all too familiar. After a declaration from the Chinese Commissioner asking that all imports of opium be stopped immediately and that the cargo be destroyed one Trader responds:

Mr Burnham sank back into his chair and stroked his silky beard.  ‘Let us be clear about what we have just heard,’ he said calmly.  ‘An open threat has been issued against us; our lives,our property, our liberty are in jeprody.  Yet the only offence sited against us is that we have obeyed the laws of free trade – and it is no more possible for us tp be heedless of these laws than to disregard the forces of nature, or disobey God’s commandments.’

‘Oh come now, Mr Burnham,’ said Charles King.  ‘God has scarcely asked you to send vast shipments of opium into this country, against the declared wishes of its government and in contravention of its laws?’

‘Oh please, Mr King,’ snapped Mr Slade, “Need I remind you that the force of law obtains only between civilized nations?  And that the Commissioner’s actions today prove, if proof were needed, that this country cannot be included in that number?’  From page 406.

Western imperialism at its best.

Too much of this history would be would be deadening but  Ghosh fills  his novel with characters that include Bahram Modi, a Parsee merchant from Bombay who become so immersed in the trade that he can’t see a way out of it,  English horticulturist Fredrick Penrose, helped in his search for unusual plants by Paulette, an orphan I met in Sea of Poppies, and Robin Chinnery, illegitimate son of the painter George Chinnery, who loves Faanqui-town because it is the one place he feels free to live the way he chooses.  I found the use and mix of many cultures and languages a joy.

There are times when  River of Smoke stalls, as merchants wait to see what the Chinese will do, to see will happen after the Imperial government closes the harbor.  Perhaps this is a taste of the deadening dream state that opium smokers fall into, a sapping of energy.  This creates a sense of foreboding as the timing of this novel leads up to the first Opium War.  In 1839 the British, threatened with the loss of the Opium trade, wrecked havoc on the Chinese coastline and forced  China to increase commerce with the west.

I cannot wait to see what happens in the finally volume of this massive, historically-based trilogy.


Filed under Historical Fiction, Review

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2005

Borrowed from my local library.

I have never wanted to read any fiction based around the incidents of 9/11/01 but, possibly because it has been ten years,  felt it was time to read this novel.

This story runs through the pages like flashes of brilliant light, reflections from shards of broken glass.  It is the story of nine-year-old Oskar Schell’s life two years after his father’s death at the World Trade Center.  It is also the story of his Grandfather and Grandmother, other people he meets on his search for a lock that fits a mysterious key and the tragedies that flow through history.

Along with Oskar’s curious personality, his inventions and letters from  Stephen Hawking, there are the images of Dresden and Hiroshima and the layered stories of lost fathers makes that one day a link in the chain of human events, places it in perspective.   I found this novel so much bigger then that day, that tragedy, so full of  hurt and heart and wild love.  I want to thank Jonathan Foer for his words and to thank  Oskar for his courage in the face of great loss.

In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir.  Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman would report if the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you could know if New York was in heavy boots.  And when something really terrible happened – like a nuclear bomb, or at least a biological attack – an extremely loud siren would go off, telling everyone to get to Central Park to put sandbags around the reservoir.  from page 38.

Then, out of nowhere, a flock of birds flew by the window, extremely fast and incredibly close.  Maybe twenty of them.  Maybe more.  But they also seemed like just one bird, because somehow they all knew exactly what to do. from page 168.

You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness. from page 180.

I am so glad I finally read this.  Now I feel I am ready to see the film.


Filed under LiteraryFiction, Review

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.

Margo Crane grew up as a member of a large dysfunctional family living next to the Stark River outside of the town of Murrayville .  Because of abuse and a rift between adults she finds herself alone and disconnected.  When her father dies in an act of family violence, Margo decides to take to the river in her Grandfather’s boat.  She runs from her family in search of her mother.

The Stark River flowed around the oxbow at Murrayville the way blood flowed through Margo Crane’s heart.  She rowed upstream to see wood ducks, canvasbacks, and ospreys and to search for tiger salemanders in the ferns.  She drifted downstream to find painted turtles sunning on fallen trees and to count herons in the heronry beside the Murrayville cemetary.  She tied up her boat and followed shallow feeder streams to collect crayfish, watercress, and tiny wild strawberries.  Her feet were toughened against sharp stones and broken glass.  When Margo swam, she swallowed minnows alive and felt the Stark River move inside her.  From page 15.

Campbell writing is clear and direct.   Margo at 16 is determined but unsure of herself and falls in with men to gain security and support.  Some of these men are kind, some are violent.  By the end of the novel Margo gains strength and independence and is clear in the choices she makes.  I found some parts of Once Upon a River hard to read and others quite beautiful, particularly the descriptions of the river and the animals and humans that live on it.  The novel didn’t really grab me until the last third of so, then I found it quite moving.

Because of Margo’s journey  Once Upon a River has been compared to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  I found it more like Winter’s Bone, a novel I loved.  If you have read this book leave a comment and I will link to your review.


Filed under ContemporaryFiction, Review

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.

One summer I spent some time on Vancouver Island.  I remember sitting on the deck of the place where I was staying and watching the cruise ships passing up and down the Georgia Strait.  They seemed magical, all lit up, self-contained worlds.  Rows and rows of lights gleaming in the dark.

Michael Ondaatje’s new novel is about a journey taken by an eleven year old boy.  Traveling alone on a cruise ship from Colombo, Sri Lanka, to join his mother in England, Michael, nicknamed Mynah,  is seated at the “cat’s table”, as for away from the Captain’s Table as possible, his companions, a group of odd adults and two other boys traveling on their own.  All of these outcasts have interesting lives.  The boys have free run of most of  the ship and spend their time exploring, listening, being rambunctious, determined to push all boundaries.  As an adult, remembering this journey, Michael is filled with longing and loss.

A quiet book that contains several mysteries, it is the characters from The Cat’s Table that I enjoyed the most.  It’s as if Michael was showing me his memories, describing his friends and many of the adults on his journey.  Returning with him to this voyage  I feel a great sadness that these people have drifted apart.  There is a sense of regret.

So began a tradition between us.  That I would at certain moments in my life tell Emily things that I would not tell others.  And later in our lives, much later, she would talk to me about what she was going through.  All through my life, Emily would be distinct from everyone I knew.  From page 112.


I am someone who has a cold heart.  If  I am beside a great grief I throw barriers up so the loss can not go too deep or too far.  There is a wall instantly in place, and it will not fall.  Proust has this line: “We think we no longer love our dead, but…suddenly we catch sight again of an old glove and burst into tears.”  I don’t know what it was.  There was no glove…From page 141.

This is a story of  travel to a new world, a new life, and gives a taste of what that must feel like, particularly to a child displaced by family choice, not the necessity of someone leaving due to political or social upheaval.  Ondaatje has said that the idea for this novel came from personal experience but that he wanted to tell a fictionalized account of something that had been forgotten.  I’m not sure what he means by that, it all feels very real to me.  That is one sign of a master story-teller.

Every immigrant family, it seems, has someone who does not belong in the new country they have come to.  It feels like permanent exile to that one brother or wife who cannot stand a silent fate in Boston or London or Melbourne.  I’ve met many who remain haunted by the persistent ghost of an earlier place…From page 139.

I found this book beautifully and simply written and enjoyed it, as I have so many of Michael Ondaatje’s other novels.  I have also read some of his poetry.

Other reviews:

Buried in Print

Jules’ Book Reviews

Reading Matters

The Mookse and the Gripes


Filed under Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, GillerPrize, Historical Fiction, LiteraryFiction, Review

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

Scribner, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.

I have yet to read A Visit from the Goon Squad, but some have made comparisons between it and Stone Arabia.   I think it’s just because they are both about a certain time period in America and, specifically about music, be it pop, blues, rock or punk.

This is a story about a brother and sister.  Denise Kranis and her brother, Nik, grew up in Los Angeles during late  seventies/early eighties.  Since their father had handed him a guitar at age ten, Nik had played music, he wrote music, he had a band.  But something happened,  Nik broke up the band and drifted from job to job, eventually ending up pouring drinks in a dive bar, where he has been for the last fifteen years.

Denise has a decent job,  a daughter, a relatively quiet life,  and has always supported Nik when he needs it.  But as her mother begins to lose her memory and Nik seemed to be sliding into depression, Denise chooses to revisit and evaluate her past.  Her focus turns to examining Nik’s creative projects, particularly The Chronicles, a collection of music, CD’s , liner notes and reviews.   Nik has built an alternative life, a musical life,  and documented every bit of it.

This short novel is really about family and memory, the way the two intertwine and change each other.  It is not straight forward,  moving between the present and the past, told in the first and third person.  There is a lot of America in it, both past and present.  I liked Stone Arabia and found it moving and intelligent.

Memory resides in what you notice, what you feel, what catches in your mind.  And the things I remember best about the last year are not conversations with Ada or dates with Jay or helping Nik.  All of those things fuzz into one another.  The things I remember best are not my experiences at all.  They are what I call the permeable moments: events that breached the borders of my person.  Let’s call them breaking events.  I don’t mean breaking news.  I mean the breaking of boundaries.  These are incidents that penetrated my mind, leaked the outside inside.  From page 106.

…We are all really good at pretending we are a normal family, and somehow us pretending all at once is a big part of what makes us feel like a family.  It is like a willed self-delusion.  Or maybe you can lie to yourself, that’s a self-delusion, but if you have a delusion about several people, if you all share in this delusion, that isn’t self-delusion, is it?  That is a family.  From page 232.


Filed under ContemporaryFiction, LiteraryFiction, Review

Sweet Heaven When I Die by Jeff Sharlet

Sweet Heaven When I Die by Jeff Sharlet

W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2011

Borrowed from my library.

I first heard of Jeff Sharlet when he published a fine article in Harper’s titled Jesus plus nothing.   Five years later that article morphed into a book, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.  I have been a fan ever since.

With the subtitle Faith, Faithlessness and the Country in Between  Sharlet’s newest book is a collection essays that shines a blinding light on how we, as Americans, find, lose and regain faith.  How we sometimes blindly accept faith with nothing more than a song and a bottle of whiskey to guide us.  There is always a song.

Often compared to writers focusing on life in America, from Mark Twain to Joan Didion,  Sharlet searches along the borders where  our culture and our religion meet,  he is willing to look deep into the mix of religion and politics.   Often driven to the edge he finds himself looking over, into the depths of the American heart.

     …We hope when the odds, no matter how good, are still that: odds, chance, a gamble in which the rules may change at any time,  for any reason, with or without our acquiescence.  We hope when we understand that circumstances are beyond our control, when will is not equal to effect, when we are not the subjects of the story but its objects.  Hope isn’t optimistic;  it’s the face of despair.  My grandmother taught me that, not long before she died.  “Despair,” she said, was her favorite word.  “It’s not a bad thing.  It’s a gift.  A recognition.”  It is the opposite of dread.  Perception, not speculation. You accept the facts of your fate rather than reading them as evidence of a judgement or a moral.  Some people might call that quitting.  From page 249.

I find Jeff  Sharlet’s writing fearless, his honesty inspiring and often his words strike my heart.  I read two blogs that he helped start, The Revealer and Killing the Buddha,  regularly.


Filed under Culture, Essays, Religion, Review