Sunday, July 31, 2011

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Jayme)

Title:  Gilead
Author:  Marilynne Robinson
Published:  2004, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Genre:  Literary Fiction
Accolades:  2005 - Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2004 - National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, 2006 - long list Orange Prize for Fiction

76-year-old Congregationalist Minister John Ames is dying of a heart condition.  Still capable of preaching and mentally sharp he has decided to write a letter - a journal of his thoughts - to his young son to explain the family's history, who he is, and what he believes.  Set in Gilead, Iowa in 1956 this quiet, profound book is the story of a life and a faith that can move mountains if only it can forgive.

There are certain books that as soon as you read the first two or three pages you know that it is special - that it will change you somehow - maybe not lightning bolt jolts, but small, subtle movements near your heart.  Gilead was that book for me.  Gilead begins with John Ames counting the blessings of his life and expressing the joy of having found love and having a child in the twilight of his years.

" I'm writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you've done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God's grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle." page 52

What simple words written or spoken that could be life-changing - some one's salvation - maybe we need to say them to those we love.  As we read on though we discover when the "prodigal son" of a life-long friend comes back to town that John Ames has yet to give the greatest miracle of all - forgiveness. Though Ames is a minister he still struggles with a human soul and Robinson deftly and beautifully describes his torment and his epiphany.

In the bible Gilead means hill of testimony and that is what the book Gilead is for John Ames his testimony of a well-lived life. 

My Rating: 5 out of 5

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Secret Lives of Baba Sagi's Wives by Lola Shoneyin (Jill)

The Secret Lives of Baba Sagi's Wives
By Lola Shoneyin
Completed July 29, 2011

Bolanle is the youngest and newest wife to enter Baba Sagi's household. The only one of the wives that is educated, Bonanle presents a threat to the other wives - in more ways than one. They are intimidated by her education and concerned that a secret shared by all three wives will be revealed. So begins the plight of the women who are the cornerstone to The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives.

Told from alternating viewpoints, Lola Shoneyin gives her readers just enough to keep the story moving, uncovering small angles of the story with each chapter. We learn about each wife: Iya Segi, Iya Tope and Iya Femi as well as Bolanle and Babi Segi. Individually, their stories are a fascinating look at polygamous marriage and how they came to marry Babi Segi.

While the entire story was engaging, I found the first three wives to be horrible, conniving and distrustful. I didn't like them, even as I learned their "backstories." Baba Segi was even less likeable. Bonanle was the saving grace, and I was usually relieved when I learned the next chapter would be told from her point of view. The ending was sad - unnecessarily tragic - and I let out a big sigh when I finished this book. All in all, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives was just an average read for me. Be sure to check out others' reviews, though, before deciding to read this book. ( )

FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Jayme)

Title:  A Visit From the Goon Squad
Author:  Jennifer Egan
Published: 2010, Borzoi Book - Alfred A. Knopf
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Accolades: 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award, long list for 2011 Orange Prize

A Visit From the Goon Squad is a novel that is written as a collection of stories that center around Bennie Salazar a music executive, his kleptomaniac assistant Sasha and the people that weave in and out of their flawed lives. Each chapter is a story that moves through the timeline of Bennie and Sasha's lives and as readers we witness the moments that changed them.

A Visit From the Goon Squad has received critical acclaim, but somewhat mixed reviews from the "everyday" reader.  I understand the division. This book is difficult to pinpoint and to categorize - just writing the first paragraph of this review was hard because it is a difficult book to explain.  But I will tell you that I loved it.  The writing is crisp, honest, and inventive.  There are proses in this book that are so vivid and accurate that I had to stop and read them again and again.

"It's turning out to be a bad day, a day when the sun feels like teeth."  page 60

Time is a key element to the story (The Goon Squad is a reference to time) - it is always there hovering over the characters and they each feel its impact as it changes their relationships, values, and themselves. The book weaves back and forth through a time span of about 50 years starting in the 1970's and ending in a somewhat dystopian 2020.  My favorite chapter is the chapter that is written as a power point by a teenager of today. It is so in the moment - our current time - it is brilliant.

A Visit From the Goon Squad is a remarkable, strangely moving story about the one thing we can't escape - the impact of time.

My Rating:  5 out of 5

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett (Jill)

The Magician's Assistant
By Ann Patchett
Completed July 25, 2011

For most of Sabine's adult life, she was in love with her employer and best friend, Parsifal. They travelled together as a magic act and later as antiques experts. They shared an uncommon bond of friendship. Sabine knew her love would always be unrequited. Why? Because Parsifal was gay - and his true love was a man named Phan.

Sadly, both Phan and Parsifal had AIDS, and as Sabine prepared to say good-bye to them both, Parsifal does something remarkable: he married Sabine, ensuring her financial freedom for the rest of her life. Parsifal, however, had secrets too, namely a mom and two sisters in Nebraska who had not seen him in more than 20 years. When they learned about his death, Parsifal's mom and sister came to Los Angeles to meet Sabine. Once united, Sabine and Parsifal's family pieced together his mysterious life.

The Magician's Assistant was a tale like none other. Indeed, a woman married to a gay man near the end of his life was an unusual story development. However, Ann Patchett had more tricks up her sleeve. Incredibly loving and flawed, Parsifal's family showed Sabine what life was like for young Parsifal (then called Guy), uncovering more secrets. Together, they mourn his death and help heal old wounds.

Wonderfully told, The Magician's Assistant was a moving story of love, friendship, family ties and estranged relationships. Each of the story's twists and turns were unpredictable, and while Patchett left the ending open-ended, I was pleased with the strength of friendship among this group of women. Their mutual love for Parsifal brought them together, but their love for each other made them even closer. The Magician's Assistant was a beautiful book, and once again, Patchett swept me away with her magical storytelling. ( )

Friday, July 22, 2011

Scottsboro by Ellen Feldman (Jill)

By Ellen Feldman
Completed July 21, 2011

The Scottsboro case was one of many ugly marks in American history. During the 1930's, nine young black males were arrested for raping two white women in Alabama. Despite weak evidence and a wavering testimony by one of the women, each man was convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair. The case was an international outrage and was the most tried case in American legal history. And it provided the background for Ellen Feldman's Orange Prize-nominated book, Scottsboro.

In the book, a young journalist, Alice Whittier, became fascinated with the Scottsboro case, and she convinced her editor to assign her to the trial. Alice was a feature writer at heart and didn't waste time trying to get a human angle. She met each of the nine accused and talked to the two alleged rape victims. Alice could tell that one of the women, Ruby Bates, was lying about what happened. She took personal interest in Ruby, trying to convince her to do the right thing. For Ruby, though, doing the right thing was not an easy thing to do.

The book followed the case and its first appeal, when hot shot attorney, Samuel Liebowitz, agreed to defend the men. Feldman painted a picture of racism, anti-Semitism and sexism that permeated the entire trial. It was downright nasty. As I read the testimonies and court exhibits, I hung on to every word and move by the attorneys, judges and spectators. It was court drama at its best.

I can't rave about Scottsboro enough. The Southern setting, social lessons and moving drama kept me at the edge of my seat. This is my first book by Feldman - but not my last. I highly recommend Scottsboro to anyone who likes to be riveted and moved by a great story. ( )

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Laura's Review - Molly Fox's Birthday

In this quiet, contemplative book, an unnamed narrator spends a day reminiscing about her long-time friend, Molly Fox.
Molly Fox is an actor, and is generally regarded as one of the finest of her generation. (She insists upon 'actor': If I wrote poems would you call me a poetess?) One of the finest but not, perhaps, one of the best known. ... She likes the fear, the danger even, of the stage, and it is for the theatre that she has done her best work. Although she often appears in contemporary drama her main interest is in the classical repertoire, and her greatest love is Shakespeare. (p. 2)
The narrator is a playwright, using Molly's house as a retreat to work on her latest play while Molly is away in New York and London. During the course of a day -- which happens to be Molly's birthday -- she relives significant moments in their lives, and reflects on their relationships with friends and siblings.

The two met many years before, when Molly was cast in the narrator's play, and supported each other through the highs and lows in their careers and relationships. The narrator's older brother, Tom, is a priest who befriended Molly and may have counseled her through some difficult situations. Molly's brother, Fergus, suffers from undefined psychological difficulties precipitated by traumatic events in his childhood.

As the narrator putters around Molly's house, she recounts several events in her relationship with Molly, painting a clear picture but one that seems just a bit too cut and dry. I suspected there was more to the story than she was letting on, perhaps more than she was willing to admit to herself. I began to pick up on tiny clues to a deeper perspective. When Fergus drops in to visit Molly but finds only the narrator at home, he stays to chat and ultimately provides critical insight to Molly's character and history, casting entirely new light on everything that was revealed before.

This was a very interesting study of memory and point of view, and how personal experience shapes relationships.

Cross-posted from my blog

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives - Wendy's Review

“Wipe your eyes,” she said, passing me a rag. “It has been a month since your parents died. This is not your home and it will never be. A girl cannot inherit her father’s house because it is everyone’s prayer that she will marry and make her husband’s home her own. This house and everything in it now belongs to your uncle. That is the way things are.” – from The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, page 135 -

Bolanle is Baba Segi’s fourth wife in a polygamous marriage. She is educated and young, and is a threat to the other wives in more ways than one. When she fails to conceive a child, Baba Segi is bereft and begins to seek answers which may uncover the biggest secret his wives have kept from him yet. Told in multiple and alternating viewpoints, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives explores the polygamist society of Nigeria by gradually revealing the secrets of the women who people the novel.

Iya Segi is the first wife – large and outspoken, she is the unofficial power beneath Baba Segi’s roof. Her plan to humiliate Bolanle and drive her from their home gets lukewarm support from Iya Femi, the third wife who has vengeance on her mind and who would rather see a quicker solution to the problem.

When a plan does not go right, you plot again. One day you will get it right. One day you will be able to damage the person who hurts you so completely that they will never be able to recover. I have told Iya Segi this on several occasions. I keep telling her that we need to find a permanent solution but she does not have wisdom. – from The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, page 74 -

Iya Tope is the second wife, a woman whose compassion is silenced by fear. Forced into an arranged marriage to Baba Segi, Iya Tope has learned to be humble and silent in the face of wrong doing.

As the story unfolds, the lives of each of these women intersect and come together to reveal the larger family of Baba Segi. Other characters are introduced, including Taju, the driver who also harbors a secret, and the many children who live in the house. Although Lola Shoneyin breaks up each person’s narrative by chapter, I found many of the characters’ voices to be interchangeable, and so sometimes I found myself struggling to keep all their stories straight in my mind.

Thematically, the novel probes the rights of women in a polygamist society and in Africa in general. Baba Segi is a self-important, chauvinistic man who sees Bolanle’s inability to conceive solely her fault. His view of sex is all about his own pleasure and he refers to it in crass terms. In general, sex is not portrayed as all that desirable – for the most part, it is represented as a wifely duty for the women with the point being to produce children. Sex for pleasure is largely punished and a source of guilt in the novel.

Shoneyin shows the inequality of women in her book, and all but Bolanle are portrayed as conniving, manipulative and vengeful. It made me wonder how accurate the novel is with regard to women in African society. Ultimately, Shoneyin provides for some redemption and forgiveness in her book about family secrets, betrayal, and disloyalty.

I found this to be an easy book to read. The individual stories are laced with myth, parables and folk lore. I enjoyed the gradual revealing of each character’s secret – a bit like peeling the layers off of an onion. Shoneyin managed to surprise me a bit with Baba Segi’s character who is so stereotypical at the outset, but managed to grow into a person who had depth and empathy by the end of the book.

The plot of this book is original, although the characters felt a little bit undeveloped to me. Shoneyin captures the flavor of a paternalistic society well.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives was nominated for the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction and will appeal to readers who enjoy African literature.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Laura's Review - The White Family

Alfred White has had a long career as a London park keeper. His days are spent patrolling the park, monitoring its condition and making sure visitors adhere to park rules. Alfred is close to retirement, and has seen a lot of change over the years. He longs for the Britain of his youth, during and after World War II. He is especially upset by the influx of foreigners, changing the ethnic mix of his London neighborhood and, consequently, the park visitors.

One day Alfred collapses on the job and is hospitalized. His sudden weakness shocks his wife and adult children, who have grown accustomed to Alfred's firm, controlling hand. His adult children have all gone their separate ways, but are brought back into contact at Alfred's bedside. Darren is an established journalist living in the US, and is on his third marriage. Shirley is in a relationship with a black man, which caused a rift with her father. Dirk has been unable to establish an independent adult life, and lives at home while working in a corner shop. He has developed disturbing extremist political and racial views.

May, the wife and mother, held this crew together over the years. Like many women of her generation, her husband made all the decisions. When Alfred went into hospital, May found she couldn't even withdraw money from the bank on her own. But May is also strong inside, in her own way, and she has a suppressed intellect that remains an important part of her life:
She always liked to have a book in her bag. In case she got stuck. In case she got lost. Or did she feel lost without her books? There wasn't any point, but she liked to have one with her, a gentle weight nudging her shoulder, keeping her company through the wind, making her more solid, more substantial, less likely to be blown away, less alone. More -- a person. (p. 19)
Through short chapters narrated by different family members, Maggie Gee develops the White family's history and the nature of the parent-child and sibling relationships. Each of the children bear scars from their father's discipline and temper. Darren appears successful on the outside, but is deeply wounded inside. Shirley has been unable to have children, and struggles with issues of faith. Dirk is a ticking time bomb, prone to alcohol-infused bouts of temper as he acts out his resentment towards anyone better off than himself. Alfred and May, for all their flaws, have shared a long and loving marriage, and are likeable in their own ways.

This book is not for the faint of heart. There's a lot of sadness, as the entire family copes with Alfred's medical condition. May considers, for the first time, that Alfred may not always be there for her. Alfred struggles with weakness & infirmity. Each of the children relive their childhood and their relationship with Alfred, and rather than bond together each of them struggles individually. There are also many disturbing moments, particularly Gee's portrayal of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment. This would have been a 4.5-star book were it not for a too-tidy denouement about Shirley which struck me as both unrealistic and unnecessary. Still, this is a well-crafted story, with a strong emotional pull and an intense and startling climax.

Cross-posted from my blog

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber (Jill)

The Personal History of Rachel DuPree
By Ann Weisgarber
Completed July 18, 2011

Rachel Reeves was a strong-willed, hard-working woman from Chicago who wanted a better life for herself, including marrying a man with "ambition." When her boss's son, Isaac DuPree, came home on leave from the Army, Rachel knew she met the man she wanted to marry. Isaac was determined to improve his lot in life by planning to move to South Dakota to become a rancher. Rachel, seeing her ticket out, approached Isaac about marrying her to help him claim more land - an offer he couldn't refuse. It was then that she became Rachel DuPree - and her personal history as a black wife of a South Dakota rancher came alive on the page.

Rachel's story about living in the harsh conditions of South Dakota was mesmorizing. At the time of the story, her ranch was experiencing a severe drought, and she worried about food and water for her family (which included four children and one on the way). As conditions worsened, Rachel began to yearn for life back in Chicago. For Isaac, though, returning home meant failure - he wouldn't even consider it. Rachel began to ponder her choices, deeply torn between her children and her marriage.

A deep undertone to The Personal History of Rachel DuPree was racism. As a black family, the DuPrees experienced racism in South Dakota, but what was more pronounced was the racism toward Native Americans. Additionally, there was racism among the African Americans, where Northern blacks discriminated against blacks from the South. This book was an eye-opening look at the various forms of racism that plagued the U.S. in the early 20th century.

With its strong characters and themes, A Personal History of Rachel DuPree is a worthwhile read for anyone who likes stories that examine social issues. It was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2010 and shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers. It's definitely worthy of its accolades, and I look forward to more fiction by Ann Weisgarber. ( )

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison

England, 31st August 1939: The world is on the brink of war. As Hitler prepares to invade Poland, thousands of children are evacuated from London to escape the impending Blitz. Torn from her mother, eight-year-old Anna Sands is relocated with other children to a large Yorkshire estate which has been opened up to evacuees by Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton, an enigmatic, childless couple. Soon Anna gets drawn into their unraveling relationship, seeing things that are not meant for her eyes and finding herself part-witness and part-accomplice to a love affair with unforeseen consequences. A story of longing, loss, and complicated loyalties, combining a sweeping narrative with subtle psychological observation, The Very Thought of You is not just a love story but a story about love.
Sometimes you hear about a book and you think to yourself "I know that I am going to love this book" and then when you come to write the review it gives you great satisfaction to be able to say that you were right. And then there are the other books - those ones that sound like exactly the kind of book you are going to love...and you just don't.

The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison is unfortunately one of the latter types for me. In theory this is a perfect book for me. I love reading stories set against the background of war, particularly World War II, and whilst I have read about a young person going to stay with a family as an evacuee earlier this year, this is the first time I have read that experience through the eyes of an evacuee who goes to a stately home turned school. The historical setting and the location sound fascinating.

The story starts with 8 year old Anna Sands. She is about to be evacuated to the countryside like thousands of other children were just after the outbreak of World War II but before the bombs actually started to fall on the major cities. After sharing a magical day out with her mother in preparation for their separation, Anna is looking forward to going to the seaside but instead ends up at a stately home in Yorkshire with lots of other children, where the house has been hastily converted into a school. Anna is somewhat remote from the other children emotionally, but feels a connection to Thomas Ashton almost immediately. Thomas worked for the diplomatic corps until he was left wheelchair bound after a bout of polio and is now running the school and doubling up as a teacher for some of the time.

Thomas and Elizabeth are desperate for children, and when I say desperate, I mean desperate, particularly in Elizabeth's case. There is some hope that by opening their home up to become a school they will in some way compensate for their barrenness but it is at best a band aid solution. As a character, Elizabeth suffers from being very two dimensional - the bitter woman who descends to a very dark place. She is not the only two dimensional character who fills the pages by any stretch of the imagination, but she certainly is the most obvious example of this.

Even the secondary characters seem to be caricatures of real people. For example, whilst Anna is pining away in the school in Yorkshire, her mother Roberta is living the high life in London barely giving her young child a thought.

Of the things that bothered me about this book, one of the bigger issues include the fact that the author didn't seem to know what the focus of the novel was. Was it meant to be a story about the evacuee experience of a young girl? Was it meant to be a dissection of a marriage from the point where Elizabeth decided that Thomas was the man for her and made it happen, through his illness and subsequent disability, and then their inability to have children? Was it meant to be the story of the descent of the physical house from family home to empty National Trust property? All of the above? Having finished the book, I can't say that I am sure.

That's not to say that Alison can't turn a phrase, because she most certainly can, and there were sections where I stopped and reread passages because the observations were so strong. For example, from page 82:

It was no comfort to her that William had been heroic, because the soaring death toll had already devalued the worth of any one sacrifice  

and then again from page 105

Sometimes, across the dining room she would glimpse Thomas talking to someone, and her heart would turn over at the sight of his smile. And a memory would come back to her of the longing she had known for him before their marriage. But she knew that now it was only a memory of a feeling, not the feeling itself. 

The couple of lines of the publisher's blurb say that "The Very Thought of You is not just a love story but is a story about love", but I would argue that it is neither of those things, or at least it is not the kind of love that I want to read about or live. Why would anyone want to love if it left everyone unfulfilled for the rest of their days? I guess this kind of ties in with the idea that all the characters in "literature" need to be miserable in order to be worth reading about. I don't get why that needs to be the case, but it is certainly not something that has gone unnoticed when it comes to discussion about the various literature prizes over the years.

Thanks to Galleygrab for giving me the opportunity to read this book!

Rating: 3/5

Cross posted at my blog

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Jamrach's Menagerie - Wendy's Review

A mile from the shoal we hove to. A ghostly feather appeared, far, far out to sea, just for a second, and my heart was beating very very fast. Tim, down from his eyrie, ran over to me, out of breath. “This is it.” He could hardly get it out. “This is it, this it, Jaf,” he said and gripped my hand hard. My mouth had gone dry. – from Jamrach’s Menagerie -

Jaffy Brown is growing up on the streets of London in the late nineteenth century. He is a fearless eight year old when he encounters a Bengal tiger on the street, reaches up to pet it on the nose, and ends up dangling from the tiger’s mouth. That experience introduces Jaffy to a man named Jamrach and his menagerie of animals found around the world. Jaffy is invited to work for Jamrach where he befriends Tim, a boy a bit older than him whose competitive nature causes some strain in the friendship. When both boys are given the opportunity to find and capture a sea dragon as part of a three year whaling expedition, they do no hesitate to sign on to the adventure. What unfolds is an experience which will indelibly change their lives as they brave the unforgiving power of the sea together.

Carol Birch’s Orange Prize nominated novel of a young street urchin’s coming of age on a whaling boat is filled with quirky characters who are not always likable. The book is narrated by an adult Jaffy who is looking back on his boyhood years, and so there is an adult feel to this tale of youth. Early on, Birch establishes the uneasy friendship between Tim and Jaffy. The early chapters are devoted to the boys’ time in London and is filled with descriptions of the rough city streets. I found the early going slow paced, but when Birch begins the saga of the whaling expedition, the novel picks up considerably.

Birch’s writing is highly descriptive and allows for a solid sense of place.

The sea lapped over the transom, poured up the deck and swirled about the submerged companionways, and a colossal shift took place in the heart of the ship as three or four hundred barrels of oil moved as one with a sound like the end of all days. Sound: the sea, the wild wind, the voices of our crew as the brittle, wooden speck we lived on rolled over like the slippery pole at the fair, and the sky flew up as the swingboat soared. – from Jamrach’s Menagerie -

The latter half of Jamrach’s Menagerie is not for the faint of heart. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I will say that the themes of survival and sacrifice are strong. Many of the images in this part of the novel are disturbing and graphic. There were times I set the book aside and was not eager to pick it back up again.

I have mixed feelings about Jamrach’s Menagerie. I found the middle part of the novel compelling and fast paced, a nice change from the first part of the book which dragged for me. Some of the latter parts were a bit too graphic for my liking. On the other hand, Birch is skilled at developing her characters and setting the scene. She brings to life the glory, pain, and terror which were found on the whaling ships in the late nineteenth century. Jamrach’s Menegarie is, at its heart, a sea adventure.

Readers who enjoy a good yarn and want to experience life on the high seas through the eyes of a young boy, might want to give this one a try. Birch peels back the skin of her characters and exposes their emotions in a raw and dark way that is hard to read at times. Perhaps it is this which makes this book the most memorable for me.

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

When I Lived In Modern Times by Linda Grant (Jill)

When I Lived In Modern Times
By Linda Grant
Completed July 15, 2011

Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2000, When I Lived In Modern Times is the story of Evelyn, a young Jewish woman from London who emigrated to modern-day Israel in 1946. While the story was a coming of age tale (of sorts) for Evelyn, at the heart of the novel was the beginning of a new nation, struggling to survive in a hostile land.

Evelyn, like so many European Jews after World War II, was displaced, though her circumstances were different from other D.P.s (displaced persons). She was raised in London by her single mom, and after her mom's death, Evelyn was looking for a fresh start. She eventually settled in Tel Aviv - a modern city with new buildings - and quickly made friends with the Jewish residents and British colonists who lived there. Evelyn was unique because she encompassed both worlds - a Jew who wanted a free country who was just as comfortable talking to the Brits. She eventually had to pick a side, and thanks to a relationship with a Jewish freedom fighter (or terrorist, depending on what side you're on), she began to help the Zionist movement in small ways.

The beginning and end of When I Lived in Modern Times were engaging, but overall, the book was an average read for me. The highlight of the story was learning about the creation of Israel. While I am familiar with this nation's early history, it came alive in Grant's writing. What didn't come alive for me, though, were the characters. They seemed flat and one-dimensional, and for a reader like me who enjoys character-driven fiction, I was disappointed by this aspect of the book.

Obviously, something about this story appealed to the Orange Prize judges at the time, so if you like award-winning books, then give When I Lived in Modern Times a go. Perhaps it will engage you more than it did me. ( )

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Laura's Review - The Tiger's Wife, by Téa Obreht

In The Tiger's Wife, Téa Obreht weaves together fantastic tales filled with folklore and a bit of magical realism. Natalia and Zora are two young doctors, traveling to a remote village to administer vaccinations to local children. It's shortly after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and political/religious tensions are still high. Just before leaving home, Natalia learns her beloved grandfather passed away while on a journey far from home. Her grandmother is justifiably distraught. She was unable to be with her husband at his death, and she doesn't understand what he was doing in the place where he was found.

Natalia mourns silently; she doesn't even confide in Zora. Her grandfather, also a doctor, was clearly a mentor and role model. As Natalia remembers visits she and her grandfather made to the zoo, she begins retelling stories he passed down to her, mostly about his life and the people of his village. The stories read like folk tales. The end of one story often led to another, to flesh out a particular character even further. This put me off at first, because I kept wanting to get back to Natalia, Zora, and the village. I struggled a bit with the magical realism in stories featuring "the deathless man," but I persevered and enjoyed them more than I thought I would.

I really wanted to love this book, but in the end I simply liked it. I spent the first half of the book frustrated, unsure where it was going. Then I got swept up in one of the stories and thought, "now we're cooking, I'm really going to like this!" I found the connections between stories interesting, and became emotionally invested in some of the characters. Unfortunately, I was unable to hold onto those feelings. Téa Obreht is clearly a talented writer, and despite my feelings about this book I'm looking forward to watching her career and reading more of her work.

Cross-posted from my blog

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Jill)

Purple Hibiscus
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Completed July 11, 2011

In her debut novel, Chimananda Ngozi Adichie engrosses her reader with the story of 15-year-old Kambili, a young girl living in Nigeria under the abusive rule of her father, Eugene. Kambili and her older brother, Jaja, are forced to live in the strictest of circumstances - punished physically and emotionally for the smallest of infractions - all while their country goes to hell in a handbasket.

The siblings get a reprieve when their Aunty Ifeoma invites them to her house for a holiday. There, Kambili and Jaja see a more loving home where children can make mistakes and express their opinions. It's an eye-opening stay for them both. It added more rebellion to Jaja's ways, and it showed Kambili a different kind of Catholicism, led by her friendship with a young priest. When the two returned home, they struggled to live under their father's oppressive rule.

Let's talk a moment about Eugene, who I call "Asshole." A jerk to his wife and kids, he was the pinnacle of charity to his community, often paying for other children's education and donating large sums of money to the Church. He also funded the only Nigerian newspaper that spoke out against dictatorship, and his views on democracy were quite enlightened. While his public persona was admirable, his private life was disgusting. The way he treated his wife and children were unforgiveable. Charity begins at home, Asshole.

Don't let this ugly character dissuade you. Purple Hibiscus is a stunning story. Adichie is magical in her writing, transporting her readers to Nigeria with just a few sentences. I could smell the flowers, taste the food and see the landscape. She adeptly mixes her native tongue into the dialogue - all without losing the reader. She's astonishingly talented for such a young woman.

I can't recommend Purple Hibiscus enough. You will learn a lot about Nigerian culture, and be moved by the story and characters. If you haven't read stories by Adichie, this is a good place to start. I don't think you'll be disappointed. ( )

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Tiger's Wife - Wendy's Review

My grandfather never refers to the tiger’s wife by name. His arm is around me and my feet are on the handrail, and my grandfather might say, “I once knew a girl who loved tigers so much she almost became one herself.” Because I am little, and my love of tigers comes directly from him, I believe he is talking about me, offering me a fairy tale in which I can imagine myself – and will for years and years. – from The Tiger’s Wife, page 4 -

Natalia and her friend, Zora, are both doctors and traveling to an orphanage by the sea in the former Yugoslavia to deliver medications, when Natalia learns her grandfather (also a physician) has died. Although his death is not a surprise (she knew he was ill), what shakes her is that he did not die in his home but far away in an isolated village and apparently he was on his way to see Natalia. Confused and grieving, Natalia continues on to her destination determined to understand her grandfather’s death through the stories of her childhood. She remembers her days at the Citadel with her grandfather, outside the tiger’s cage, listening as her grandfather reads from his worn copy of The Jungle Book. But there are other stories, some her grandfather has told her, and one that he has not.

The Tiger’s Wife is a sprawling, beautiful novel that unfolds gracefully as the narrative moves back and forth in time, revealing the life of a man through the stories he has shared with his granddaughter. Place is very important in this novel set in the Balkans. Although Tea Obreht uses fictional towns, the history of the region bleeds into the narrative. The presence of war looms throughout – including the Nazi invasion, and the Yugoslav Wars.

People must have seen him, but in the wake of bombardment he was anything but a tiger to them: a joke, an insanity, a religious hallucination. He drifted, enormous and silent, down the alleys of Old Town, past the smashed-in doors of coffeehouses and bakeries, past motorcars flung through shopwindows. He went down the tramway, up and over fallen trolleys in his path, beneath lines of electric cable that ran through the city and now hung broken and black as jungle creeper. – from The Tiger’s Wife, page 94 -

This novel is full of symbolism, the most obvious being the tiger himself – a graceful, powerful predator who brings beauty and fear to a small mountain village in the wake of the Nazi invasion. The tiger of the novel is the physical embodiment of Shere Khan from The Jungle Book – a fictional character who comes to life for Natalia’s grandfather one cold and magical winter. Tigers are gorgeous, they are stealthy, and most certainly they remind us that we are mortal and death may only be a paw swipe away. Obreht explores the idea of death and spirituality in The Tiger’s Wife. There is the story of the deathless man, a man who is able to cheat Death, who passes through her grandfather’s life like a shadow. And when Natalia arrives in the seaside village with Zora, she discovers a group of people digging in the vineyard, searching for a body whose spirit, they believe, is sickening their children.

But it would be wrong to assume that The Tiger’s Wife is only about our understanding and coming to terms with death. It is so much more. This is a novel about prejudice and fear, how stories shape who we later become, and our connection to family through the stories of our childhoods. This is a book about superstition and magic fused with reality. For me, the most satisfying part of the novel was the power of story. Obreht introduces the reader to the rich history of folklore and storytelling in the Balkan region – a region filled with diverse culture and religion, and one whose history is as complex as its people.

Obreht brings to life dozens of characters who weave through the stories within the story, adding depth to the narrative. Perhaps the most troubling and curious character is the village apothecary who looms larger than life for Natalia’s grandfather.

Standing under the counter, one sock lower than the other, my grandfather would look up at the shelves and shelves of jars, the swollen-bottomed bottles of remedies, and revel in their calm, controlled promise of wellness. The little golden scales, the powders, the herbs and spices, the welcoming smell of the apothecary’s shop, were all things that signified another plane of reality. And the apothecary – tooth puller, dream interpreter, measurer of medicine, keeper of the magnificent scarlet ibis – was the reliable magician, the only kind of magician my grandfather could ever admire. Which is why, in a way, this story starts and ends with him. – from The Tiger’s Wife, page 104 -

I loved this book – its sprawling, nearly dreamlike, narrative; its incredible description of place; and its fantastic characters. Tea Obreht excels as a storyteller. The best tellers of tales are those who are able to immerse their audience in the texture, taste, smell and feel of the story. Tea Obreht does this effortlessly. I was riveted to The Tiger’s Wife and carried along through its pages by the spellbinding voice of a very talented writer.

The Tiger’s Wife won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction – and I believe it earns its place there. This is a memorable novel, a magical novel, one that had me dreaming of tigers and snow capped mountains and a man who cannot die. Readers will be thrilled and swept away by this book…one of the best of the year.

Highly recommended.

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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Laura's Review - The Memory of Love

The Memory of Love takes place shortly after Sierra Leone's Civil War (1991-99). Adrian, a British psychologist, has returned to the country following an initial short volunteer experience. He's left his wife and daughter at home in the hopes of making a difference, helping the people of Sierra Leone recover from trauma. His methods are viewed skeptically at first, but eventually he begins to have a positive impact on his patients. Kai is a brilliant young surgeon working in the same hospital, and haunted by war trauma and lost love:
And when he wakes from dreaming of her, is it not the same for him? The hollowness in his chest, the tense yearning, the loneliness he braces against every morning until he can immerse himself in work and forget. Not love. Something else, something with a power that endures. Not love, but a memory of love. (p. 185)
Kai is still in love with Nenebah, a woman who left him some time ago. He also misses his best friend Tejani, who left the country to practice medicine in the US. Kai toys with the idea of joining him, and takes steps necessary for immigration, but is clearly ambivalent about leaving other loved ones behind in Sierra Leone.

In Sierra Leone, silence rules the day: the war is simply not discussed; personal stress is suppressed, as if it's all a big secret. Most of Adrian's cases suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, having witnessed horrific violence during the war that they have been unable to deal with on an emotional and psychological level. And then there is Elias, the patient who on the surface appears the most "normal." Elias checks himself into the hospital, knowing he is near the end of his life. He has a compelling need to unload his personal story on someone, and Adrian begins meeting with him. Elias worked at the university, first as a lecturer and ultimately as dean. While his personal circumstances kept him away from most of the violence, he and other academics were arrested under suspicion of some vaguely described wrongdoing. Elias describes his response to this event, and its impact on important people in his life, in a matter-of-fact way but gradually Adrian realizes there's much more to Elias' story.

Aminatta Forna uses patient stories, gradually revealed through Adrian's therapy, to help the reader imagine the war's events. She also builds a web of people which I found fascinating. Kai and Adrian's lives intersect first on a professional level and later in deeply personal ways. The connections between people and events unfold slowly, and for me each revelation was very emotional. This is especially true of Elias; when his "sins of omission" are revealed, his real character becomes known, as does a connection that binds him with both Adrian and Kai. The ending was especially wrenching and yet somehow, just right.

This is a superb book; I was transfixed and couldn't put it down.

Cross-posted from my blog

Friday, July 8, 2011

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (Beachreader)

Title:  Bel Canto
Author:  Ann Patchett
Published:  2001, Harper Collins
Genre:  Literary Fiction
Accolades:  2002 Orange Prize, 2002 Pen/Faulkner Award, 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction shortlist

In this lyrical and beautifully written novel Ann Patchett has created a story based loosely on an actual hostage situation in Peru in 1996.  In an unnamed South American country diplomats and the wealthy are gathering in the home of the vice president to hear an international opera singer perform at the birthday party of a powerful Japaneses businessman.  During the party terrorists storm the home and take everyone hostage.  What begins as a horrendously difficult and frightening situation slowly turns bearable as days turn into weeks turn into months and terrorists and hostages find the humanity in each other in order to survive the ordeal.

I am going to come right out and say it - I have a few quibbles with this book.  I can not deny that Patchet is an amazing weaver of words and the book is rich with descriptive passages;

"She stared hard into the darkness of her eyes, the place where she knew the sins stacked up like kindling, dry and ready for a fire."  page 247, Bel Canto


What I had a hard time with was suspending belief.  I don't know if its post 9-11, but I couldn't feel sympathy towards the terrorists which made it difficult to believe or even understand some of the events that occur in the book. The plot of the book is interesting, the idea that when people are trapped together even under vicious circumstances they create their own universe to help make sense of the chaos and stress that fear can induce, but there had to be someone out of all those hostages who would have at least plotted an escape - the idea wasn't even suggested (unless I missed it).

The other problem I had with the book was the epilogue. I felt it was just tacked on as an after thought.  The ending would have been more powerful if the book had stopped before the epilogue (I can't really go into detail why with out spoiling the story).

Patchett's characterization is brilliant. She captured how our culture plays an integral role in shaping who we are and it was interesting watching how the characters overcame their differences in order to survive.  I kept reading the book because there were several characters that I really liked and I wanted to know if they "made it out alive."  If you are a fan of Patchett's you will enjoy this is well-written story. 

My Rating Guide:  3 out of 5

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Great House by Nicole Krauss (Jill)

Great House
By Nicole Krauss
Completed July 7, 2011
"...Every Jewish soul is built around a house that burned in that fire, so vast that we can, each one of us, only recall the tiniest fragment: a pattern on the wall, a knot in the wood of a door, a memory of how light fell across the floor. But if every Jewish memory were put together, every last holy fragment joined up again as one, the House would be built again..." (page 279)

Great House isn't about a house per se. Rather, it's the story of people with a deep and tormented history - who individually represent a sliver of their collective past, but together, form a congruous whole. In this story, a desk is the connecting theme - an assuming piece of furniture that began in the office of a Jewish man in Budapest and made its way around the world, touching and affecting the lives of many people.

In this story, we meet a writer who lives in New York, an antiques dealer and his family from Jerusalem, a retired prosecutor and his son from Israel and a British couple. With one exception, the desk spends time with each person - often carrying good luck but painful memories too. As the story progressed, you follow the journey of the desk and the people who sat at it. In time, you see the other connections between each one.

Nicole Krauss is a gifted storyteller who is not afraid to take her readers on a journey that can be complicated and arduous. Indeed, Great House is not the easiest book to read with its swirling storylines and flowery language. It requires concentration as you learn about these characters whose lives are separate but connected. Each story could stand alone, but when placed together, they evoke a deeper meaning.

Great House will probably be revered by fans of literary fiction. It would make a compelling book for discussion, especially if led by the right moderator. In the end, I am glad I took the time to read this book - and sure that I will be thinking about this story for a long time. ( )

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel (Beachreader)

Title:  Beyond Black
Author:  Hilary Mantel
Published:  2005,  Henry Holt and Company
Genre:  Gothic
Accolades:  2006 shortlist Orange Prize

Alison Hart is a kind, lonely woman who is well-respected in her field. Those that are down on their luck or have dark secrets are drawn to her and she gently tries to help them see the light.  But Alison also has dark secrets.  She is haunted by a horrendous childhood and by the spirits of those that hurt her - literally and figuratively.  Alison is a psychic medium.  She sees dead people.

I like a good ghost story even if it's really dark and eerie, I don't frighten easily. Beyond Black is just that - it's beyond dark - way beyond.  This is a creepy book on so many levels.  The most frightening aspects of the book are not the ghosts themselves, but it's the horrible people that the ghosts were before they were ghosts and the sickening things that they did to Alison when she was a child. There aren't many likeable characters, dead or alive, which made it very difficult to enjoy this book.

There are many layers to Beyond Black.  On the surface it's about a psychic and the ghosties that haunt her relentlessly, but it's also about the ghosts of our pasts that haunt us and keep us from moving forward.  So the question that I was left wondering was, " Did Alison really see ghosts, or was it the pain of her past that haunts her?"  You'll have to read the book and decide for yourself.

My Rating:  3 out of 5

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (Jill)

Journey to Swamplandia and meet the Bigtree family - a clan of alligator wrestlers and theme park owners whose existence depends on gullible tourists desiring to see the unbelievable. The Bigtrees' lives turn upside down, however, when Hilola Bigtree dies from ovarian cancer. Hilola was the main attraction - a petite woman who could tape shut an alligator's mouth in 30 seconds and swan dive into a pit of alligators unscathed. While Hilola's death takes a toll on the park, it most profoundly affects her surviving family - her husband Chief and children Kiwi, Osceola and Ava.

With the park losing tourists and their home missing Hilola, the remaining Bigtree family begins a fast deterioration. Kiwi runs off the mainland to find work at a competing theme park to help pay off Swamplandia's debts, while Chief takes one of his long business trips. Osceola, enjoying newfound freedom, becomes fascinated with spiritualism and believes she can date ghosts - to the point where she runs off one night to elope with a ghost named Louis Thanksgiving.

That leaves 13-year-old Ava alone - until The Bird Man arrives. Allegedly hired to help locals clear off birds from their islands, Ava befriends The Bird Man, and together they begin a several-day journey to a place called The Underworld to find Osceola and bring her home.

The majority of the book is told from Ava's perpsective, and true to her age, she sees things in a naive way. As the story progresses, her naivete turns to scorching reality. The reader sees what's coming, but young Ava does not. The last 100 pages of Swamplandia! will have you turning the pages in dread, hoping your worst fears for this young heroine do not come true.

It would be easy to dismiss this book as too fantastic with ghost lovers and swamp living, but Karen Russell does a tremendous job making it all seem very real. Her ability to describe the people and places of Swamplandia suck you into a vortex that you don't want to leave until the last page is read. At the heart of it all, Swamplandia! is a coming of age tale that focuses on the love of family. With its gothic feel and Florida setting, I enjoyed this story and can't wait to read more by this talented young writer. ( )

Side note:

Swamplandia! is set in Florida's Ten Thousand Islands - an area in southwest Florida that is largely uninhabited and teeming with Florida nature. While you may not want to visit Ten Thousand Islands in person (bugs and alligators abound!), you can take a virtual visit online. Enjoy!