Tag Archives: LiteraryFiction

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.

25 Comments

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

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

Riverhead Books, New York, 2011

From my library TBR list.  This book has been short listed for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize.

Born in 1933, Jamil Ahmad spent time in the Pakistani Civil Service.  He served in the frontier province, traveling through the “Badlands” between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Ahmad is a traditional story-teller.  He values and love these lands and the tribal people who live in and travel across them.

The Wandering Falcon is a small book made up of stories.  Stories you might hear sitting at an old man’s feet or around a fire with many relatives.  I have to believe that this still happens somewhere.  That people tell stories to the young, to each other.

A young couple runs away from their tribe and takes shelter with a group of soldiers.  They build a life and have a son.  Eventually the head man of their tribe comes looking for them and they run away, only to be killed in the desert, their son left to starve. This boy is Tor Baz, the “Black Falcon” and he grows up to wander the land.  The stories follow him from tribe to tribe, from youth to adolescence to manhood.

The area where Pakistan and Afghanistan meet is inhospitable.  It’s people are traditional, tribal, most are nomadic, following their herds through summer and winter, over open pasture, through difficult mountain passes.  They live a harsh, honor-bound life. Many of their beliefs and traditions clash with those of the west.  They are being forced to change.

Jamil Ahmed, through this small collection of linked stories, as written the late 20th and early 21st century history of this land.  The closing of borders, wars fought for territories, western influence, these pressures and others force a people who have lived in certain ways for centuries to change those ways over night.  Ahmed’s stories bring this land, these people, to life.

I enjoyed this book, loved Jamil’s traditional story-telling.  I am sad for these people, for their struggles, for being caught in a time of great change.

Other reviews:

Farm Lane Books Blog

S. Krishna’s Books

Winstonsdad’s Blog

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Filed under Afghanistan, Historical Fiction, Pakistan, Review

Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam

Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam

Other Press, New York, 2011

From my TBR pile.  I first read an excerpt of Lamb in Harper’s last summer and was completely drawn in by Nadzam’s writing.

David Lamb’s life is falling apart.  His marriage is over, his father has died and he is in danger of losing his job because of  an office affair.  Then, while sitting in a parking lot, a young girl approaches him on a dare.  This is eleven-year-old Tommie, bumbling and awkward and, Lamb thinks, a to change his life.

At first it seems  Lamb truly wants to help Tommie, to offer her the things he feels are missing from her life. Then, when he decides to take her on a road trip to a cabin in the west, the reader has to question his motives.

Dear girl, how could she not carry Lamb with her, all the grassy fields he painted hanging between her little face and the world, bright screens printed with the images he made for her: flashes of green and silver; huge birds circling in the wind; the wet brown eyes of a horse; yellow eggs on a breakfast dish; the curve of their backs on a weathered rail fence on a cool blue morning.  From page 36

This pair, so awkward and needy, make it hard to stop reading and yet the possibilities are terrifying.   Lamb’s lies become clear but is he lying to Tommie or to himself?  Does it matter? Nazdam’s writing surrounds her characters, covers their emotional dysfunction and manipulation with layers of beauty.

A stunning, morally ambiguous novel,  Lamb is dangerous and difficult book.  It will be on my 2012 favorites list.

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Filed under LiteraryFiction, Review, TBR Double Dare

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.

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Filed under LiteraryFiction, 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.

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Filed under LiteraryFiction, 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

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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.

3 Comments

Filed under ContemporaryFiction, LiteraryFiction, Review

Zero History by William Gibson

Zero History by William Gibson

G.P. Putman’s Sons, New York, 2010

Borrowed from my library.

I have very eclectic taste in books.  I love  Science Fiction.  I have very specific tastes in Science Fiction.  There used to be a book store in Santa Monica, California, called ” A Change of Hobbit”, I would get lost in there for hours.  That is where I first discovered William Gibson, just when his novel “Neuromancer” was published.

According to SciFi geeks, Gibson invented the term “cyberspace”.    His work has evolved over time to include alternative history and speculation about near-future urban environments but Zero History is different.  This is no longer science fiction,  this is the present becoming the future faster than it takes to read a sentence.  And the past just seems to disappear.

Hurbetus Bigend, the head of Blue Ant, a company that finds the next big, big thing and is all over viral marketing, wants to get into the military contracting business.  After all, war is recession proof.  He sends Milgrin, a ex-addict who owes Bigend his life, to steal the design of some street wear from a threatening looking man on the US east coast.   He hires Hollis Henry, former lead singer in the band Curfew, to find the designer of a very secretive line of fashion called Gabriel Hounds.   In the midst of all this Bigend’s activities pisses off another military contractor named Gracie and all hell breaks loose.  There is this and so much more than this, wrapped up in a book that feels like a movie or ten movies on big screens or like sitting in front of a hundred CCTV screens trying to track the latest social menace.

Zero History, along with the other novels in what could be  called the ” Blue Ant” trilogy, crosses barriers and enters the arena of literary fiction.  Evolving technology, street fashion, pop culture and last stage capitalism all play a part in this tightly woven thriller.  I love how William Gibson’s mind works,  he fits things together in ways that are very, very smart,  all the while seeming to spin out of control.  Reading his books makes me happy.  Weird, huh?

11 Comments

Filed under Art, Canadian, CanadianBookChallenge5, LiteraryFiction, SpeculativeFiction

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

Simon & Schuster, New York, 2010

From my TBR pile.  The only other  work I’ve read by Baker is a nonfiction book,  Human Smoke.

Paul Chowder, an  occasionally published poet, is trying to write an introduction to a poetry anthology entitled Only Rhyme.  He’s having trouble.

But every time I actually tried to start writing the introduction, as opposed to just writing notes, I felt straightjacketed.  So I went out and bought a big presentation easel, and a big pad of presentation paper, and a green Sharpie pen, and a red Sharpie pen, and a blue Sharpie pen.  What I thought was that I could practice talking through the introduction as if I were teaching a class.

And in order to be relaxed at the easel, I drank a Newcastle.  Also coffee, so that I would be sharp.  And still I wasn’t sufficiently relaxed, so I drank some Yukon Gold that I found in the liquor cabinet.  No, not Yukon Gold, that’s a potato, Yukon Jack, a kind of Canadian liqueur.  It was delicious.  It added a slight Gaussian blur.  And then some more coffee, so I’d still be sharp.  Blurred, smeared, but sharp.  from page 29.

Paul is adrift, his girlfriend has left him,  at times he is heartsick, at times full of piss and vinegar, and his editor is getting nervous.  Always, his head is filled with poetry, with language, and he talks about it.  A lot.  It made me laugh.  He also talks about the formation of language, stuff I had to spend many hours learning about before working with students with dyslexia.  Just brilliant.

Baby talk, which is full of rhyme, is really the way you learn to figure out what’s like and what’s not like, and what is a discrete word , or an utterence, and what is just a transition between two words.

How does it happen?  Well, it happens gradually, and it happens by matching.  Matching within and matching without.  First you have to learn that a certain feeling in one part of your body, your tongue, matches with a certain feeling in your brain, which is a sound.  A slightly different feeling in your tongue matches with a different sound coming out of your mouth and a different sensation of muscular control registering in your brain.  Each subtle difference of sound feels different.  And this is all very difficult and takes a lot of trial and error and babbling and drooling and lip popping and laughing.  from page 107.

I like poetry.  It is obvious that Nicholson Baker likes poetry.  He has written one of the best books about poetry I have read.  Fiction or nonfiction.  Maybe the best.  He talks about rhythm and meter in ways that are easy to understand, ways that are fun, like a pop song with a great hook.  I don’t think you even have to like poetry to enjoy this novel.  If you don’t, The Anthologist might open up a whole new world for you.

Now I want to go out and read all the fiction the Nicholson Baker has written, maybe even his newest.  His new book is getting lots and lots of press.  I wonder why?

Other reviews:

A Work in Progress

Fizzy Thoughts

Jenny’s Books

Olduvai Reads

Tales from the Reading Room

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Filed under LiteraryFiction, Notable Books, Review