Tag Archives: ContemporaryFiction

Great House: A Novel by Nicole Krauss

Great House: A Novel by Nicole Krauss

W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010

Borrowed from the library.  I did not finish this book.

I remember reading The History of Love a couple of years ago and enjoying it.  I really wanted to love Great House, just because the idea of an author’s desk passing from one person to another seemed like a great premise.

This novel is actually a series of four stories following the lives of people who have hidden connections to each other.  Some stories held me more than others.  Krauss is a master of description and sometimes her words touched me deeply.

And yet you taught me something of death.  Almost without my being aware of it, you smuggled the knowledge into me.  Not long after you asked me whether you would die, I heard you talking aloud in the other room: When we die, you said, we’ll be hungry.  A simple statement, and then you went on humming off-tune and pushing your little cars across the floor.  But It stayed with me.  It seemed to me that no one had ever summed up death quite like that: and unending state of longing with no hope of receiving.  I was almost scared by the equanimity with which you faced something so abysmal.  How you looked at it, turned it over in your mine as best you could, and found a form of clarity that allowed you to accept it.  Maybe I’m ascribing too much meaning to the words of a three-year-old.  But however accidental there was beauty in them:  I live we sit at the table and refuse to eat, and in death we are eternally hungry.  From pages 177/178.

There are many characters in Great House, and Krauss manages to bring  voices to all of them.  The stories are fragments, shards of a mirror, all reflecting the history of people’s lives, scattered across the globe from New York to London, Madrid to Jerusalem.   Sadly none of the stories really grabbed me.  I found myself skimming, something I find disconcerting when reading fiction, and after putting down and picking up the book several times, decided that I really had no desire to finish it. Maybe it was just bad timing.

Desire is what keeps me reading, wanting to know where a story leads, what happens to characters, likable or difficult, how multiple threads weave together in the end.  If that desire fades I will give up on a book.  There are just too many books out there and not enough time to read them all.  I am sorry to say that Great House couldn’t hold me.  I am interested in other opinions.  If you read and reviewed this novel, please feel free to leave a link and I will add you to the review list.

Other reviews:

Book Chatter

chasing bawa

Fizzy Thoughts

Regular Rumination

Shelf Love

9 Comments

Filed under ContemporaryFiction, Review

Cutting for Stone – Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Vintage Books, New York, 2009

I own this one, another book read for the TBR Dare.  Winner of the 2010 Indies Choice Book Award.

A book that I waited too long to read.   I am glad I finally got around to it.

Cutting for Stone is the story of twins Marion and Shiva, sons of a secret union between a British surgeon and an Indian nun.  Born at the “Missing Hospital” in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the twins are orphaned when their mother dies giving birth to them and their father disappears.  They are left in the care of the two doctors left at “Missing”, Dr. Kalpana Hemlatha and Dr. Abhi Ghosh and raised on the grounds of the hospital and among the people of  the neighborhood.

Over time Hema and Ghosh, Marion and Shiva form a family that grows to include the people around them.  This novel is just as much about what a family can be, about what it can mean, as it is about Marion and Shiva and the mystery of their birth parents.  It is also about other things, about surgery and medicine, about the history of Ethiopia and Eritrea, about being forced to leave your homeland.  It is dense, layered and beautifully written.  I devoured it so quickly I forgot to mark passages to quote and now find it difficult to choose any. It will be one of my favorite books of the year.

I have read articles and reviews by Abraham Verghese and thoroughly enjoyed them.  I have added his book My Own Country to my TBR list.

Other reviews:

Caribousmom

Farm Lane Books

Fizzy Thoughts

S. Krishna’s Books

The Literate Housewife

9 Comments

Filed under ContemporaryFiction, Historical Fiction, Review

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin

William Morrow, New York, 2010

I borrowed this one from the library.  This is the second book to knock me off the TBR Dare,  it was worth it.

This is a  novel I could not stop reading.  It is a mystery, but so much more than that.

Silas “32” Jones has returned to the tiny town of  Chabot, Mississippi and is the town constable.  Larry Ott, an auto mechanic has been ostracized by the community ever since he was suspected in the disappearance of a high school acquaintance.  Now another girl has disappeared and Larry is the prime suspect.

It is a great story, a fine mystery, and the issue of friendship tinged by racism make it even stronger.  But it is Franklin’s writing that held me and has me wanting to read more of his work.  The narration moves back and forth in time and the depth of feeling Franklin shows between Larry and Silas as boys, and the distance that has come between them as men, is the main theme of this story, even as the mystery is built up around them.

They rolled the push mower out of the barn and into the sunlight and Larry showed him how to check the oil and the gas and how to prime the pump, how to pull the cord to crank it.  Then, yelling over the noise, Larry showed him how to adjust the motor speed and push the mower in rows, narrowing towards a center.  Silas snatched the handle and said okay, his turn.  He loved it, the buzz of the motor, hot fresh cut grass in the air, between his bare toes, wild onion sizzling on the frame, the bar vibrating in his fists and the occasional mangled stick flung from the vent.  When he was a kid one time, Larry yelled, walking alongside Silas, Larry’s daddy was cutting grass and Larry watching and his daddy ran over a rock that shot like a bullet and bounced off Larry’s bare stomach and left a red imprint of itself.  Larry’s daddy had laughed real hard.  Even took a Polaroid and laughed every time he looked at it.  You had to be careful of where you let the vent aim, was Larry’s point.  You didn’t want to spray any rocks out towards any cars or towards people, see?   Silas turned and left Larry standing and mowed rows and rows and kept mowing, loving the design he was making.  It felt good, like combing his hair..From page 151.

There is innocence here, mixed with the struggles of growing up, and the pressure from adults to copy beliefs and prejudices.  It is a beautifully drawn story and will be one of my favorites of the year.

Have you read and reviewed this novel?  Leave a comment and I will add your link.

Other reviews:

Caribousmom Fizzy Thoughts,   Mysteries in Paradise The Book Lady’s Blog, The Literate Housewife,

11 Comments

Filed under ContemporaryFiction, Mystery, Review

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

House of Anansi, Toronto, 2010

Shortlisted for the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize, on the long list for the 2011 Orange Prize.  I own this one.

Imagine being eleven years old, with thoughts of becoming a teenager and the awkward sense of things changing around you and in you.  Then imagine suddenly learning you are not who you think you are.  This is the story of Wayne Blake.  This is the story of Annabel.  They are one and the same.

Jacinta and Treadway Blake both know there is something different about their child.  Jacinta is torn by a sense of  loss.  Treadway is determined to raise his son the way he was raised.  They never speak about the difference, never share their knowledge with their son.

All children, she thought as she watched him, could be either boy or girl, their cheeks flushed, their hair damp tendrils.  Wayne looked up at her so trustingly she badly wanted to sit beside him, to look at him and honestly explain everything that had happened to him from birth.  At nine, she thought, a child has a capacity for truth.  by age ten the child has lengthened and opened out from babyhood, from childishness, and there is a directness there that adults don’t have.  You could look in Wayne’s eyes and say anything true, no matter how difficult, and those eyes would meet yours and they would take it in with a scientific beauty that was like Schubert’s music.  From pages  93/94.

The decision to keep silent, to keep secrets, places a wedge between Jacinta and Treadway and eventually between parents and child.   Winter is wonderful at developing her characters and sharing their inner lives with the reader.  I ended up caring for all of them, with all their differences.

…..When Treadway needed to speak his mind, he spoke it to a boreal owl he met when he was seventeen.  He and the owl shared physical traits.  Both were small for their species.  Each had a compact rounded shape, efficient and not outwardly graceful.  The boreal owl was one of the quietest, most modest birds.  It roosted in tall, shady thickets of black spruce and drew absolutely no attention to itself.  Treadway had met the owl as he rested halfway between the Beaver River and the trail back home.  He had been in the same spot more than half an hour when the tiny owl caught his eye, twenty feet over his head.  He didn’t know what caused him to look up at that spot.  A silent impulse of recognition.  Treadway often discovered wildlife like that, as if an invisible bubble had burst and somehow it made you look in that spot.  From page 214.

Kathleen Winter has written a moving and eloquent book about mixed gender, identity and the human journey to individuality.  It weaves together the lines that connect us as families and as friends.   It  tells how easily these connections can be broken.  It is a story containing wonder and ugliness,  all beautifully written.  I enjoyed this novel immensely.  It is about about families, about growing up and about trust, acceptance and love.

…..There is a new world for every child, sooner or later, no matter what kind of love has lived in the home.  Strong love, love that has failed, complicated love, love that does its best to keep a child warm through layers of fear or caution.  One day the layers begin to fall…  From page 228.

Other reviews:

Amy Reads, Eclectic/Eccentric, Monniblog Reading Through Life,   The Mookse and the Gripes

11 Comments

Filed under ContemporaryFiction, OrangePrize, Review

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

I wrote this review before finding out about the earthquake and tsumani that struck Japan.  I thought about not posting it, but decided to go ahead.  For information about what is happening in Japan, and to offer help, visit this link. (Thanks, Google)

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel

Vintage, New York, 2006

I own this one.  Another book read for the TBR Dare.

I’ve been aware of and curious about  Haruki Murakami for a long time.  I tried reading The Wind-up Bird Chronicle a few years ago and just could not get into it.  I found Kafka on the Shore much more accessible.

The novel revolves around the journeys of two main characters.  It follows them as they are unknowingly drawn together.  They never meet, but their lives connect through actions that are surreal and dreamlike.

Kafka Tamura, “the toughest fifteen-year old in the world”, leaves home to escape a curse or maybe to find his mother and sister.  He is well prepared but has no idea where he is heading until looking  at a map  he feels himself drawn to a particular place.   Eventually he ends up at a private library and developes relationships with the two people who run the place.

At the same time Nakata, a man who suffered a strange accident during the war that left him unable to read or write and with no memory of his past.  Nakata leads a quiet life and has the ability to talk to cats.  I found him the most intriguing and most likable character in this strange novel.

Nakata never went into these conversations with cats expecting to be able to easily communicate everything.  You have to expect a few problems when cats and humans try to speak to each other.  And there is anotherfactor to consider: Nakata’s own basic problems with talking – not just with cats, but also with people.  His easy conversation with Otsuka the previous week was more the exception than the rule, for invariably getting across even a simple massage took a great deal of effort.  On bad days it was more like two people on opposite shores of a canal yelling to each other on a windy day.  And today was one of those days.  From page 76.

In what seems an incident of mind control, Nakata finds himself drawn into an act of violence and must leave his home.  He also finds himself drawn to a particular place and eventually ends up at the same private library.

After ghostly appearances, fish and leeches falling from the sky,  possible incest real and imagined, and a journey into a dark wood, Kafka Tamura finds himself returning to his home to pick up his life again, but I found I didn’t really care what happens to him.

I admit Murakami is a fine writer.  There are many beautiful passages in Kafka on the Shore, but by the end of it I really questioned why I read it.  There is a great mix of philosophy, classical music, literature and mythology woven into the story but none of that made it real for me.  I guess this is considered  magical realism, a style of writing I usually love, but for me it has to have some warmth behind it, something real and human to hold it together.  Sadly, for me, I did not find what I needed in this novel, it seemed to fall to pieces in my hands.  I do not know if I will try another book by Haruki Murakami.

Other Reviews:

chasing bawa

In Spring it is the Dawn

The Reading Life

Things Mean A Lot

16 Comments

Filed under ContemporaryFiction, InTranslation, Review

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011

Borrowed from the library.  This is the book that made me break the TBR Dare.

Ava Bigtree lives in a swamp.  Her dad, “Chief'” Bigtree, runs an island amusement park complete with alligator wrestling, The Swamp Cafe and Live Chicken Thursdays.  Everything is going swimmingly until her mother Hilola, champion alligator wrestler and star of the show, suddenly dies.  Is this the beginning of the end for Swamplandia!.  Will the Bigtree ” Tribe” fall with it?

Karen Russell has created a strong young heroine and placed her in the middle of a place with the tacky feel of  a 1950’s roadside attraction.  Ava Bigtree,  her older siblings, brother Kiwi and sister Ossie, live in the theme park, are part of the show, and are completely disconnected from the rest of modern America.  Of course, they suffer the quirks and passions of growing up under very usual circumstances.

Ossie’s smile flickered.  “I don’t see how we’d do very well there, Ava.  I don’t see how we could really ever catch up.  What grade would they even put us in, at a Loomis school?  I mean are they going to offer a class for spiritualists?  Gym class for you?  Gym credits for alligator wrestlers?”  She flopped onto the bed and pushed two stained pillows at our ceiling like pom-poms:  “Ava, I know!  We can try out for the cheerleading squad!”

I laughed, startled – Ossie sounded as bitter as any adult.  And Ossie was never the wise guy in our family.  The jags of intelligence inside my sister shocked everybody, tourists and Bigtrees alike – she’d say something smart out of nowhere and prove to us she wasn’t only a dreamer.  Every time Ossie was funny or mean it surprised me; it was like your skiff hitting and intricate reef, all those delicate white fans that wouldn’t yield, or like your foot scraping a rock in the middle of a deep, empty lake.  Even her fantasies had such rocks in them.  From pages 86/87.

Russell is a master at clear, concise narration that weaves magical realism with American culture.  Her skill with language creates an oddly twisted story, a fairytale, at times like Disney, at others like Grimm.  The strength of Ava’s love for her family is what sees her through the loss of her mother, separation from her siblings and her desperate search for Ossie, who run off into the swamp to marry a ghost.  I love Russell’s ability to express the connections that develop between siblings.

That night we unrolled our bright blue tarps onto the floor of the central room, which gave the wrecked wood a planetary look.  I wanted to play the End of the World, a cheery game Ossie and I had invented in our bedroom, back when the worst threat we faced was Mom’s Spaghetti Surprise.  We rolled blankets down the stairs and pretended that we were reupholstering the dead world.  The towels were the grass and the seas.  Ossie always wanted to be the creator and fluff the prairies, and I’d burst in as the destroyer and kick at stuff and roll everything up again.  Mom hated this game because all her towels ended up on the floor.  Before the ghosts showed up, we played all kinds of silly games like that, doing a theater of personalities for each other.  Ossie like to be the sweet and kind one:  saints, princesses, Vanna White.  Not me!  Even in games I liked to play myself:  Ava Bigtree, World Champion Alligator Wrestler.  I was as strong as ten men, ferocious.  Ossie always let me be the hero.  From page 177.

I love Karen Russell’s short stories.   St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves is a favorite of mine and I looked forward to this novel with great anticipation.  Parts of it are amazing and other parts just don’t hold together.  I feel Russell tried to cram too many elements into this first novel.  That doesn’t mean it is not a great story, moving, perceptive and at times very funny.  It is Ava’s thirteen-year-old observations of her family and their shared lives that really hold this book together.

Swamplandia! is based on a story from St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and includes another story that I read in the New Yorker last summer.  It may be the piecing together of these separate bits that makes this novel feel like it doesn’t really hold together for me.  Or it could be that it’s just all about sinking into the muck and seeing what eventually floats to the surface, some of which I loved.

Other reviews:

Nomadreader

The Mookse and the Gripes

17 Comments

Filed under ContemporaryFiction, Review

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker

The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker

Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer

Archipelago Books, New York, 2009

The Twin won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2010.

From my TBR pile.

A spare and beautiful novel, the story of Helmer, the eldest of a set of identical twins.  Henk, his brother, died in a car accident at age nineteen.   Henk’s girlfriend, Riet, had been driving.  In her grief she turns to his family, only to be turned away by their father.  Helmer, who had just entered college, returns to the farm to work.  There he stays for 35 years, resentful, angry, lost, only half a man.

“When the frost flowers were on the windows, we lay in our pajamas under a pile of blankets.  When it was warm, we lay naked under a sheet.  We molded ourselves to each other’s bodies.  Together we rode our bikes to Monnickendam: Henk to the agricultural college, me to high school.  We were separated all day but in the afternoon we would come riding up from different directions and simultaneously lay our forearms on the handlebars to defy wind and rain together.  We celebrated our birthday together, we had friends together and, up to fourteen, we showered together.  Until the Saturday night that father split us up.  “First one, then the other,” he said.  “Now, now,” Mother said later, when we went to her to complain.  “You’re not little boys any more.”  So what? we thought, but we didn’t say it…We belonged together, we were two boys with one body.  From pages 198/199.

After all this time Helmer, taking poor care of his dying father, receives a letter from Riet.  She visits him and asks if her eighteen year old son, named Henk, can come and help with the farm work.  The boy’s presence opens Helmer to all kinds of memories and to the possibility of change.  Bakker’s language and Colmer’s translation give this simple, quiet story a driving force.  To me the themes and characters are mythic in scope but completely rooted in reality.  The reality of daily work and a brilliantly realized sense of place.  This simple book surprised me.  I will read it again.

Other reviews:

Winstonsdad

5 Comments

Filed under ContemporaryFiction, InTranslation, Review, TBR

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Random House, New York, 2010

I own this one, thank goodness for gift cards.

This novel, written by an American, takes place in a small village in Britain.  It is a gentle love story that exposes modern-day prejudices and social issues in a way that reads like a comedy of manners.

Major Pettigrew, a widower in his sixties, lives by himself in Rose Lodge, reading his books, playing an occasional round of golf and trying to understand his son Roger.  When his brother suddenly dies his world is turned upside down, he’s not sure how to deal with his sister-in-law or his niece and Roger takes a sudden interest in being near his estranged father.

All of this is softened by the presence of Mrs. Ali, the owner of the village shop.  As their relationship develops racism and religion rear their ugly heads.  From the disapproval expressed by some townspeople over their “friendship” to the pressures of obligation from Mrs. Ali’s family, these two lovely people face difficult choices.  Throw in a quandary over the pride taken from objects passed down through generations verses humility and caring for others and you have quite a hefty story, much deeper then it first appears.

He had always assumed gossip to be the malicious whispering of uncomfortable truths, not the fabrication of absurdities.  How was one to protect oneself against people making things up?  Was a life of careful, impeccable behavior not enough in a world where inventions were passed around as fact?  He looked around at the high-ceilinged room filled with people he considered to be his friends and neighbors.  For a moment he saw them as complete strangers; drunk strangers, in fact.  He stared into a palm tree but found only a label that identified it as plastic and made in China.  From page 253.

Simonson handles these issues honestly, with a charming touch of humor.  Her writing style is being compared to that of  Alexander McCall Smith and even to Jane Austin.  Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand has gathered high praise from the press and from book blogs. The novel deserves and I enjoyed it.

Other reviews:

Capricious Reader

Fleur Fisher

Jenn’s Bookshelves

S. Krishna’s Books

The Captive Reader

7 Comments

Filed under ContemporaryFiction, Dares, Review

February By Lisa Moore

February by Lisa Moore

Black Cat, New York, 2009

This novel was on the long list for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.  I borrowed it from the library.

February is the first book I have read by Lisa Moore and I loved it, was moved by it.  It is the story of Helen O’Mara, her four children and a tragedy, the sinking of an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland.  Helen’s husband, Cal, dies on that rig, leaving Helen to raise her children.  The accident is based based on a true event.

On February 15th, 1982, the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank 165 miles east of Newfoundland, taking the lives of all 84 men on board.  Many years later this event still has an impact on the lives of  the people of Newfoundland.

Moore tells this story in several voices, shifting back and forth in time, and it helps that the heading of each small section includes the year.  Helen’s is the main focus, her devastation at the loss of her husband and her split lives,  one holding the world together for her children, the other drifting, without an anchor, in a place separate from others, barely surviving the grief, the inability to understand, just hanging on by a thread.   She lives in the present and she lives in the past with her husband, going over each tiny piece of their life together as if turning something precious in her hands.  Why did they make the choices they did?

There were men who would kill to have this job: that was the wisdom they worked under.  And: the helicopter was a terror.  But it was impossible to imagine the whole rig capsizing.
If the men did imagine it they did not tell their wives; they did not tell their mothers.  They developed a morbid humor that didn’t translate on land, so they kept it mostly on the rig. From page 97.

Her son John has just learned that he is about to be a father and is returning home for her support.  He is also overwhelmed by memories.

John remembers being in the back seat of the car with his sisters and going down Garrison Hill.  Coming up over Bonaventure, his father would gun it, saying they were going straight for the harbour.  Her and Cathy and Lulu in the back and his mother in her red wet-look hot pants suit.  His stomach would lift when they went over the top of the hill and came down, like being in an elevator.  The little bounce the car made.  The girls screaming.  His mother wore big sunglasses and hoop earrings and she had long legs, his father tended to her hand and foot.  Flying over the Garrison Hill, the east end lost in fog.  The bells of the Basilica.  From page 106.

A novel like February could have been written in ways that are overwrought and maudlin, but Moore side-steps this by using clear, descriptive language to focus the reader on her character’s thoughts and feelings.  At times this feels thin, almost shallow,  but then I felt as if I was walking on a very fine sheet of ice, and below there was all that depth, the cold weight of great loss.   Even though I have not been through anything like Helen’s tragedy, I empathized with her and often found myself right there in that place of fragility, fighting off despair.  Moore writes with words that are beautiful and evocative.  I will read more of her work.

The snow was lifting off the drifts in transparent glittering sheets that twisted and flapped and folded together at the corners and folded again, and she could hear someone’s tires squealing on the road.  The tires were burning and squealing and the engine was growling and it was such a magnificent morning and her knees gave.  The trees were encased in ice and the sun shot sparkles down the length of the branches.  The sun was like an old nickel in the sky, tarnished, dull, behind all the flying snow. Helen’s knees would not hold her.  The whole world floods you, bursts you open; the world is bigger than expected, and brighter.  From page 270.

To read other thoughts about February visit these links:

dovegreyreader scribbles

KevinfromCanada

Monniblog

My Novel Reviews

nomadreader

7 Comments

Filed under Booker, CanadianBookChallenge4, ContemporaryFiction, New Authors 2010, Review

Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye

Safe From the Sea by Peter Geye

Unbridled Books, Denver, 2010

Borrowed from the library.

I am impressed by the books being published by Unbridled Books.  Every one I have read has been good or excellent, they are taking risks with unknown authors and I have about 4 more of their titles on my TBR list at the library.

Peter Geye has written a wonderful first novel.  Safe from the Sea delves deep into the dynamics of family, what we keep secret, what we think we know and what we finally need to confess.

Noah Torr returns to Minnesota to take care of his ailing father, Olaf.  He has been away and out of contact with his father for a long time.  A great tragedy, the sinking of a ship on Lake Superior in which all but three crew members drowned,  had caused Olaf to turn away from his family, to turn to drinking for solace.  As Noah learns the seriousness of his father’s illness and contemplates his own marriage,  Olaf tells his story.  This is a simple and beautiful novel, its sense of place only adds depth to its emotional impact.

I had read good things from other bloggers about Safe from the Sea but, I admit, quotes from some of my favorite authors including Alyson Hagy, Ron Rash and Joseph  Boyden convinced me to give it a try.  It was definitely worth reading and I look forward to reading more of  Peter Geye’s writing.

For other reviews visit these links:

Amy Reads

BookNAround

Caribousmom

Rundpinne

So Many Precious Books

The Book Lady’s Blog

15 Comments

Filed under ContemporaryFiction, New Authors 2010, Review