Friday, January 29, 2010

Terri's Review - The Septembers of Shiraz

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer

From the first page of The Septembers of Shiraz, you know it’s not going to be a fun or easy read. In September,1981 in the midst of his work day, Isaac Amin, a Jew living in Tehran, is apprehended at gunpoint by two members of the Revolutionary Guards. They transport him for interrogation and imprisonment. His crime? Being a Jew and benefiting from the reign of the Shah; officially he is accused of being an Israeli spy.

Isaac is a gem trader and jewelry designer in Tehran and has led a very comfortable lifestyle, amassing a fortune under the rule of the Shah. His wife Farnaz and ten year old daughter Shirin live with him in a sprawling house with servants and a gardener. His son, Parviz, attends architectural school in Brooklyn. The novel’s chapters alternate between these four characters from a third person POV.

After the fall of the Shah, they realize that their lifestyle, if not their lives, are in jeopardy. The revolution post-Shah has changed life in Iran drastically. No longer is music or dancing allowed, any person of wealth is suspect, and anyone not loyal to Islam is considered immoral and subject to harsh punishment. A list of executions is frequently posted in the newspaper, and the Amins sometimes read of friends being killed. It is difficult to know whom to trust and conversations and letters are often peppered with code words and phrases.

“The Septembers” refers to Isaac’s idyllic time spent in Shiraz in his youth and young adulthood. It is in stark contrast to the September in which he begins his imprisonment. Some of the prison scenes reminded me of The Lizard Cage, a remarkable book about a Burmese prisoner (2007 New Writers winner). Conditions are unimaginable, torture is frequent, survival is tenuous.

As difficult as the subject matter is, I found this a very readable book. The author, Dalia Sofer, was ten when she and her family fled Iran, so I assume that Shirin is a partially autobiographical character. Sofer’s prose is beautiful – for example, when Farnaz picks up a forgotten pair of Isaac’s shoes from a shoemaker while he is in prison, “…she takes them, like a widow leaving a morgue. She walks home with the bag looped around her wrist, the shoes banging against her thigh, as if kicking her for interrupting their repose.” There are many such lovely turns of phrase in this astounding debut novel.

Highly recommended. (4.5/5)

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (Jill)

The Lovely Bones
By Alice Sebold
Completed January 25, 2010

The Lovely Bones was the brazen debut by Alice Sebold, who told the story of Susie, a 14-year-old girl raped and murdered by her neighbor. Susie told her story from Heaven - or at least a section of Heaven - and through her eyes, she unraveled a complex story of love, loss and forgiveness.

When Susie entered Heaven, she went to an ideal physical location. However, most of Susie's fellow residents were ones who died from atrocious crimes such as Susie's. This special place in Heaven was intended for healing and letting go of human life. Susie missed her family enormously and watching their grief was heart-breaking for her. She also watched her murderer as he masterfully side-stepped the police and neighbors. Imagine how frustrating it would be to know the man who killed and raped you was not even a police suspect. Worse yet, imaging watching your family tear apart from your loss. It's a perspective of Heaven I had not considered, and Susie's tale left me a lot to think about.

The Lovely Bones was a true page-turner. For me, it was a spiritual novel. For others, it might be a crime story. Either way, Sebold did a marvelous job exposing Susie's family's grief - and showing that a family's ties are the strongest ones of all. ( )

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville (Jill)

The Idea of Perfection
By Kate Grenville
Completed January 23, 2010

A word of caution to readers who haven't read The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville. It's like a wonderful homemade soup. You first add the ingredients, slowly stir and then after hours of simmering, it becomes a tasty delight. The Idea of Perfection took a few chapters to get going, but readers who stick with this story are in for a wonderful literary experience.
The book centered on two unforgettable characters - Douglas Cheeseman, an engineer, and Harley Savage, a textile expert. Both characters were visiting a small town in New South Wales on congruent missions. Douglas was dispatched to the town to demolish and rebuild an old timber bridge while Harley was there to help the town create a heritage museum. Eventually, Douglas and Harley crossed paths, and a slow love story began to develop.
Douglas and Harley shared low self-esteem and a lot of romantic baggage. Douglas was divorced, and his first wife called him a "bridge bore." Harley had three husbands - two she divorced and Husband #3 killed himself. Neither felt worthy of love and relationships, and worried obsessively about their social skills. Slowly, Grenville put both characters into story lines together, showing their vulnerabilities and general awkwardness. As the story progressed, they eventually shed - layer by layer - their doubts and insecurities.
While Douglas and Harley were sorting out their feelings, lives and inadequacies, Grenville threw in a third character, Felicity Porcelline. Felicity, on the surface, was the opposite of Douglas and Harley. She was attractive - and knew it - and spent hours trying to preserve her appearance. While she looked great on the outside, Grenville showed readers what was inside Felicity - obsessive, compulsive behavior about kitchen floors and buttons; an unnatural conflict about wrinkles, lines and creases, and what causes them; and constant need for reassurance that she's still attractive to men. Felicity was like porcelain (I wonder if Grenville chose her last name intentionally) - beautiful but fragile. And in that way, all of the characters shared this fragile-like state, though wrapped up externally in different packages.
Through this character-driven story, Grenville showed readers that perfection is nothing more than an idea - a perception held by an individual. The perfect face, perfect marriage and even a perfect bridge are never really perfect. Anyone can find a flaw. However, it's the flaws that make those things so interesting. Fans of Kate Grenville or readers who enjoy intelligent story lines will love The Idea of Perfection. I know I did. ( )

Laura's Review - The Wilderness, by Samantha Harvey

Jake is in his 60s, and has Alzheimer's. The Wilderness is told from Jake's point of view, allowing the reader to experience the devastating progression of his disease. At first, Jake has trouble finding the right word to describe an object. It's a mild inconvenience, but he can still hold it together in public -- for example, at his retirement party. Slowly, he begins to lose his short-term memory, putting objects away in the wrong places and forgetting what he is about to do, or what he has just done. However, his memories of the distant past are still clear, and he clings to those stories and images as a drowning man would cling to a lifeline.

Jake married a woman named Helen, and together they left London for "the wilderness" of Lincolnshire, Jake's boyhood home. They had two children, and lived near Jake's mother Sara and her second husband, an eccentric man named Rook. Life was not always easy for Jake and Helen: his career fell slightly short of his dreams, and creating a family was not as easy as they'd hoped. Sometimes they were there for each other; at other times they each found solace in someone else. The story of Jake's past is interspersed with moments from the present, in a kind of mishmash intended to reflect the wilderness his brain has become. As Jake's condition deteriorates there are more and more gaps in his short- and long-term memory. There was one scene in which some especially emotional events take place, and at the end it's revealed that this was all a dream, embodying many of Jake's regrets and wishes.

The Wilderness is a sad story, and very well-written, but also quite difficult to read. I found myself taking it slowly, trying to ease the pain. I can't say this was an enjoyable book, but it was definitely worthy of its 2009 Orange Prize nomination.

My original review can be found here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Jill)

The Poisonwood Bible
By Barbara Kingsolver
Completed January 19, 2010

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver was the story of the Price family who lived in the Congo during the country’s quest for independence. The Prices, led by their patriarch, Nathan, traveled from Georgia to Congo on a Baptist mission. Nathan was hell-bent to convert the “savages” to Christianity, dragging his reluctant wife and four daughters to West Africa to fulfill his desire to be a Good Man.

The story was told by the four female Prices – and their views on Nathan were less than stellar. Only his wife, Orleanna, occasionally offered a different view of the man who was depicted so terribly by others. This brings me to my first wish for The Poisonwood Bible - that Nathan had his own voice. He probably would have remained a dispicable character, but I think it would have added more dimension to him.

My second wish for The Poisonwood Bible was for it to be shorter. This is often my gripe for books greater than 350 pages. For certain, Kingsolver did a great job keeping the story’s momentum to page 350. However, the last 150 pages or so were hard to read. A great tragedy occurred in the Price family, the climax was reached, but the story kept going. I felt the last 150 pages were Kingsolver’s attempt to tell more about Congolese history than the Prices’ story. Having read Kingsolver’s essays, I know she often is disappointed with the United States’ involvement in foreign counties. As I finished those last 150 pages, I couldn’t help but think those pages were written more to advance Kingsolver’s views than good storytelling.

So, a book needing more dimension, less pages and less political agendas would normally not be considered a good book by me, but that is not the case for The Poisonwood Bible. It was a good book, filled with lively characters, an elucidation of Congolese traditions and an exploration on what happens to countries bullied by larger powers. Kingsolver is a gifted writer, and I look forward to reading more of her stories. ( )

Monday, January 18, 2010

Laura's Review - The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters

Set in 1940s London, The Night Watch revolves around the lives of four people: Kay, Helen, Vivien, and Duncan. The book opens in 1947; each character has experienced the dramatic impact of World War II, living through bombings and coping with loss. Duncan is an ex-con working a menial job. Duncan's sister Vivien is having an affair with a married man. Helen is in a committed but troubled relationship with another character, Julia. Kay is leading a somewhat aimless and lonely existence.

Sarah Waters spends nearly 200 pages building up each of these characters, whose lives appear to be independent from each other. But there is much Waters leaves unsaid. Just as I was wondering where all this was going, Waters employed a very interesting device: she took me backwards in time. Part 2 of The Night Watch is set in 1944, and there the reader learns much more about each character's history. Some of the connections between characters are explained. In part 1, Vivien briefly encounters Kay and gives her something she's had for a long time. It seems like a minor detail. But in part 2, a particularly harrowing sequence reveals the significance of the encounter in part 1. Part 3, set in 1941, portrays the protagonists at the time of the Blitz, explains how Duncan came to spend time in prison, and provides the backdrop for romantic relationships in place during parts 1 and 2.

It's an effective technique. Moving in reverse allows Waters to show only the most essential details of the past. She weaves a rich tapestry of characters and relationships. And she writes about lesbian love in a refreshingly candid way. The erotic scenes are no more or less explicit than fiction about heterosexual relationships. And they are not there to titillate, but to say, "hey, this is what happens, this is normal." I do believe this type of candor is, in some way, advancing societal understanding and acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships.

However, there was one flaw in The Night Watch: the lavatory figured far too prominently in the story. I know that every character in a novel needs to pee now and then. But does the reader really need to be informed? A couple made love and then one person "went to the lavatory." Someone would "need to use the lavatory" before leaving home. Or, a character would be sitting in their quiet house late at night and hear their partner upstairs, washing up and using the lavatory. A lavatory even featured in the aftermath of a bombing, although it was not being used at the time. What was that about? It really drove me crazy and caused me to knock half a star off the rating of an otherwise good book.

My original review can be found here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Laura's Review - Amy & Isabelle

Wow, that was one intense and emotional read.

In Amy and Isabelle, a mother (Isabelle) struggles with her 16-year-old daughter Amy's emerging sexuality. Isabelle is a single parent, focused on making ends meet and doing what's right for her daughter. But she is completely unaware of Amy's true thoughts and feelings, and of what she gets up to during and after school. Amy falls hard for her new math teacher, Mr. Robertson, and he takes advantage of her. The story opens after their relationship is discovered, fills in the months leading up to that point, and then addresses the aftermath of discovery.

This was an emotionally charged story on many levels. Amy's naiveté, her strong desire for independence, her loathing of parental authority, and her immaturity that led to unhealthy decisions ... these all rang true to me. And Isabelle. Poor Isabelle, trying so hard to forge a healthy relationship with her daughter, but alienating her instead, and unwittingly passing on some of her own life mistakes. As the mother of teenage daughters myself, I could feel her pain. Isabelle's response to Amy's relationship with Mr. Robertson absolutely tore me apart: a single act of uncontrolled anger nearly destroyed her relationship with Amy.

In the wrong hands, this story could be trite and overblown. But Elizabeth Strout has amazing talent. First, she writes beautiful descriptive prose, putting the reader right into the scene:
It rained lightly for two more days and then the sky suddenly cleared just as darkness fell, leaving for a few moments a strip of luminescent afterglow along the horizon from a sunset that had not been seen. ... By early morning a delicate strip of clouds high overhead looked like a thin layer of frosting spread across the side of some blue ceramic bowl. Mourning doves cooed unseen in the fine light; cardinals and hermit thrushes darted from one tree to another, calling out. (p. 246)
Strout also develops rich, complex characters and relationships. Take, for example, the women Isabelle works with in the office at a local mill:
So there were a variety of joys, large and small, taking place throughout the town, including a hearty laugh between Dottie Brown and Fat Bev as they sat at their desks in the office room, the kind of laugh (in this case regarding Dottie Brown's mother-in-law) that comes from two women who have known each other for many years, who take comfort and joy in the small, familiar expressions of one another, and who feel, once the laugh has run its course -- with an occasional small giggle still left, and a tissued patting of the eyes -- a lingering warmth of human connection, the belief that one is not, after all, so very much alone. (p. 125)
But perhaps most powerful is her unique way of foreshadowing. She'll drop a tiny detail into the story, one that seems inconsequential until she adds another tiny detail, and then another, each many pages apart. It's a bit like adding hot sauce to chili: add a drop, taste, add another drop, taste, add another drop, and suddenly your mouth is on fire. I found myself scrutinizing every tiny detail: was this one important? Where was she going with this? She's not going there, is she?! In this way she built up parallel stories of mother and daughter to an intense climax. And at that point I had to set the book aside, breathe deeply, and go hug my own daughters.

My original review can be found here.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Terri's Review: The Mammoth Cheese by Sheri Holman

The Mammoth Cheese is full of surprises. I expected a light funny read, but this book is chock full of people with common problems and a few not so common. There are many stories taking place in the novel and they all twine together nicely.

In the small town of Three Chimneys, Virginia, Margaret Prickett is a single mom to 13 year old Polly. Margaret is trying desperately to keep the family dairy farm afloat. Threatened with foreclosure, she puts all her hopes and energy into electing Adams Brooke president. Brooke’s campaign promise of forgiving the debts of all family farms keeps Margaret going through a very challenging year. She tends the farm, makes cheese, raises Polly and works tirelessly on Brooke’s campaign.

Meanwhile, her neighbor, Manda Franks, has just given birth to 11 babies. You didn’t misread that. Eleven. The town – and the whole country – have gone into typical media frenzy over the births. The only person seemingly not thrilled by this historical event is Manda (and the nutcases who write threatening letters).

Many other characters and minor stories enter into play. August Vaughn has worked on Margaret’s dairy farm for many years. He’s been in love with her since they were teenagers, but she’s clueless. August still lives with his parents, the Reverend Leland Vaughn and Evelyn, and he travels around the region portraying his hero, Thomas Jefferson.

Some characters are just despicable; Holman may have gone a little overboard with her portrayal of Polly’s father Francis and of Patrick Lewis, the local weatherman-turned-feature reporter. Mr. March, Polly’s history teacher, is the lowest of the low.

There are so many themes running through this book, it could almost make up three or four books – but because Holman weaves it all together so nicely, it didn’t feel overwhelming. Some of the issues include:
  • corporate farms vs family farms
  • food politics
  • coming of age
  • the ethics of fertility therapy
  • dishonesty in politics
  • patriotism
  • media responsibility
  • strengths and weaknesses of community
  • unrequited love
  • child sexual abuse
One of the things Holman does so well is depicting setting. I felt damp and dank after reading the description of Leland’s visit to Manda’s after some of the babies come home:

“Manda, could I trouble you for some Tylenol? I have a vicious headache,” said the preacher, wanting to break the depressing spell cast by the wet dogs and the musty food, the unmucked pen and the relentless drizzle. He was getting soaked, and a dull pain was blooming behind his left eye. (snip)This would be the weather in Hell, Pastor Vaughn thought dully. Not an infinite inferno, but one long unsettled day in between seasons, too hot to wear a sweater, too rainy to go without one, a muggy, clammy, oppressive sort of day, when all the world’s sins would stick to a man like dust from the road.

Made me want a shower.

Holman does a great job with her characters (with the exceptions above) and the story, chunky as it could be, really flows. And what is the mammoth cheese? It’s a 1,235 pound block of Margaret’s artisan cheese destined for an unforgettable road trip to Washington D.C. I won’t reveal more – but Holman’s book is not predictable! Recommended.


The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews (Jill)

The Flying Troutmans
By Miriam Toews
Completed January 8, 2010

Imagine you’re a 28-year-old women, facing a break-up with your Parisian boyfriend, and getting an urgent call from your mentally ill sister: Please come to Manitoba and take care of the kids. This was the case for young Hattie and the beginning of the family saga, The Flying Troutmans.

Hattie was a good aunt but didn’t have much maternal instinct. 15-year-old Logan was moody – torn between wanting love and affection, and giving the world the finger. His sister, Thebes, was percocious, artistic and loveable. Together, they committed Min to a psychiatric hospital, climbed into their van and headed to South Dakota, then California, to search for the kids’ father. Secretly, Hattie didn’t think she could take care of the the kids and hoped that their father could help out.

With the road as their guide, the three learned about each other. Hattie fumbled her way through managing Logan’s moods and Thebes’ constant talking. They collectively and privately worried about Min, who we learn more about through Hattie’s childhood stories. On the surface, Hattie, Logan and Thebes seemed to be three distinct pieces; however, as the story ended, they learned their connection as family and love for Min was enough to hold them together.

Miriam Toews carefully crafted a story that showed how family members live with a mentally ill family member, and her choice of dialogue and characters were spot on. As you get to know the characters, you start to care for them. Toews chose a very youthful narrative and dialogue style, and I wonder how The Flying Troutmans could impact a young adult audience. For any reader, this book was quick and quirky – certainly not without flaws – but if you love the proverbial family road trip story, then this is the book for you. ( )

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Outcast by Sadie Jones (Jill)

The Outcast
By Sadie Jones
Completed January 1, 2010

Lewis Aldridge was an outcast – shunned by his father who reminded him too much of his deceased wife, bewildered by his young stepmother and largely ignored by his peers in his home village. Alone and hurt, Lewis became a man torn between the hatred he felt for being cast out and the desperation to feel accepted. In her debut novel, The Outcast, Sadie Jones exposed parts of Lewis’s soul who were hard to read about, but like a bad car accident, you keep looking, hoping to learn more.

Lewis will be a character that I won’t soon forget. Most of the time, he was a character worthy of sympathy – a terrible victim of cirumstance that was acting out against society. Then, Lewis would show uglier colors and deeper flaws. He did unforgiveable things. And his bad reputation made him the target for any accusation – from rape to theft – whether he committed the crimes or not.

As I finished The Outcast, I realized that Lewis was not the only “outcast” in this book. His parents were sad and lost too. His friends’ parents, the Carmichaels, were unscrupable. When Lewis made this realization, he felt even more broken. The only good in the world, for him, was 15-year-old Kit Carmichael, who was the constant recipient of her father’s physical abuse. He was determined to help her, despite the personal costs.

It’s hard to say one could “enjoy” this book. The characters, though real, were tragic. Their destinies did not seem optimistic. But the ending left you with a glimmer of hope that the strength of the human spirit could endure all. ( )

Orange January is Here!

Nothing shatters those post-holiday blues like a great month of reading! It's time for the second annual Orange January!

What's on tap for my reading month? Well, here are some of my possibilities:

Larry's Party (1998)
When I Lived in Modern Times (2000)
The Idea of Perfection (2001)

The Poisonwood Bible (1999)
Purple Hibiscus (2004)
The Accidental (2006)
The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007)
The Outcast (2008)

The Lovely Bones (2003)
What I Loved (2003)
The Flying Troutmans (2009)

What are you reading for Orange January?

Laura's 2010 Goals & Progress

The Orange Prize is my favorite award after the Booker Prize.  In 2009, I finished the winners list and read two shortlisted works.  In 2010 my goal is 8:  7 shortlisted works, plus the 2010 winner. I'll be doing most, if not all, of my Orange reading during Orange January and Orange July.

Orange Prize Books Read in 2010
(Books will be listed as completed)
My complete list of  Orange Prize reviews can be found here.