Wednesday, May 30, 2012

2012 Orange Prize Winner Announced

 19.15pm, London, 30 May 2012 — American author Madeline Miller has won the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction with her debut novel The Song of Achilles (Bloomsbury).

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick (Jill)

Foreign Bodies by Cynthia OzickForeign Bodies
By Cynthia Ozick

Foreign Bodies is on the 2012 Orange Prize short list, and thank goodness it was nominated or else I would have missed this book. Prior to her nomination, I had not heard of Cynthia Ozick (I know, shame on me!), but now that I am acquainted with her writing, I can't wait to explore her other novels.

Foreign Bodies was a great way to become familiar with this talented American writer. Cynthia Ozick based her book on Henry James' novel, The Ambassadors. If you're not familiar with James' work, don't let that dissuade you from reading Foreign Bodies. Like me, you can read a quick synopsis of The Ambassadors online, and you'll be on your way. (Side note: Being more familiar with Shakespeare, especially Macbeth, may be more instrumental in appreciating Foreign Bodies.) 

Bea Nightingale, a middle-aged English teacher, was contacted out of the blue by her estranged brother, Marvin.  Marvin's son, Julian, had escaped to Paris and would not return home, and Marvin wanted Bea to contact him while she was on her European vacation. Bea attempted to find Julian but could not, leaving Marvin furious and demanding that Bea try again - this time, though, being tutored in "all things Julian" by his sister, Iris.  This begins a family struggle of epic proportions - father vs. child, aunt vs. nephew and husband vs. wife.

Bea was her own woman with her own ideas. She may succumb to some of her brother's wishes, but she twists each wish into her own objective. She is constantly the messenger between Marvin, and his children or wife. And with that comes a certain power - the ability to withhold information, change it or divulge the whole thing. And Bea did all those things. I am not sure Bea realized the power she had until she was in the thick of things.

The men of Foreign Bodies were despicable. Marvin was downright cruel and patronizing. Julian was a spoiled child, and when we meet Bea's ex-husband, Leo, he was nothing less than condescending. More subtle though were the despicable traits of the female characters. Iris appeared demure but could be as manipulative as her father. Marvin's wife, Margaret, knew had to throw verbal punches as well. And Bea? She had her faults too, and there were times in this story I questioned her reliability.

Foreign Bodies is pure literary fiction. It is a complex and sophisticated novel, not meant to be enjoyed by the masses. At times, the story moves slowly, but by the last 75 pages, it was quite gripping. I would not be surprised if this book received the Orange Prize for 2012. It certainly would deserve it. (  )

Monday, May 21, 2012

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (Marg's review)

Dr Marina Singh was studying to be a doctor. After a terrible incident, she gives up that course of study and instead becomes a pharmacologist, studying cholesterol. She works for a drug company, is involved in an secret affair but other than that we don't know a lot about her. If I was to use one word only to describe her I would say that she was repressed.

She normally works closely with her lab mate, Dr Anders Eckman, but months ago he had been sent to the jungles of the Amazon to try and track down the woman who was previously Marina's lecturer, Dr Annick Swenson. Dr Swenson is in the Amazon working on developing a lucrative new medication but she is something of a maverick. She won't respond to requests for updates on where she is up to with her research and so the company have sent Dr Eckman to find out exactly how her research is going and more importantly when this drug will be ready for testing.

When they receive notification that Dr Eckman has died and been buried in Brazil, his widow wants to know more about the circumstances. Her employer still wants to know about the research project and so Marina is sent south to find out more..

In terms of setting, there are three distinct sections in this book. The first part of the book is set in Minnesota and in this world Marina is very controlled in almost every way. The first stop on her journey to the Amazon is Manaus in Brazil where she spends several weeks whilst she waits for the appearance of the mysterious Dr Swenson. Whilst there she spends time with an Australian couple, the Bovenders, who run interference for Dr Swenson, trying to stop anyone from finding where she is, what she is doing and from generally disturbing her in any way. Finally, she makes it to the research station in the jungle on the banks of a tributary of the Amazon where there are many surprises in store.

Whilst Marina undertakes a physical journey, it is more the philosophical and emotional journey that forms the core of this book. She loses her luggage more than once, and each time she becomes less reliant on her westernness and in effect ends up stripped back to her bare soul.

The research that is being undertaken is perceived to be leading to a wonder infertility drug. The women of the tribe are able to sustain healthy pregnancies well into their seventies, but there is more happening at the station than just that research and the scientists working there are doing their best to keep the other research secret until the time is right. There is discussion of the moral and ethical responsibilities related to medical research and about bringing Western ways to the remote tribes but I never found those elements to be too dry or inaccessible.

I don't want to say too much more because part of the beauty of this book is watching the story unfold.

What a surprise this book was! I had only listened to one Ann Patchett book previously (Bel Canto) and I really didn't like it. I am not sure if it would have been different if I had of actually read the book, but I thought it was slow and a bit pointless.

So why did I volunteer for this book tour then? When this book first came out, I heard Ann Patchett on several podcasts that I listen to and each time I heard her I became more and more interested in the book. Then she was one of the big name guests to appear at last year's Melbourne Writer's Festival and I went to hear her talk. She is so good in a crowded room - funny and charming, engaging and passionate about writing and books. It was a case where despite not liking the only book I had read from the author, I liked the author and so I was prepared to give her another go. I am so glad that I did.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and found it much more of a page turner than I was expecting it to be. The topics discussed were interesting without feeling overwhelmed with the scientific details. There was adventure and drama - a particularly gruesome scene with a snake had my heart racing - and whilst a lot of the characters were not people I would particularly like if I met them, there is a young deaf boy named Easter who has made his home in a little corner of my heart. I enjoyed reading the way the author bought a group of individuals together to form a small community in an isolated place.

If there is a weakness in the book, it was the ending which didn't totally work for me, and I know that there are lots of other reviews out there which talk about the ending being a let down and this was one of the big issues I had when I listened to Bel Canto. I enjoyed the journey so much though, that I can live with the ending, mainly because I am not sure how else the story could have been all wrapped up. We are left not knowing where Marina goes next in her life, but that is okay because I was left feeling that she knew a lot more about herself at the end of the book than she did in the beginning.

I was so pleasantly surprised by how much of a page turner I found this book. Am I brave enough to try other Ann Patchett books? Maybe in due course, but for the time being I want to savour this reading experience.


Painter of Silence by Georgina Harding (Jill)

Painter of Silence by Georgina HardingPainter of Silence
By Georgina Harding

Set against the backdrop of pre- and post-World War II Romania, Painter of Silence is the story of two childhood friends, Safta and Augustin. Safta is the daughter of wealthy Romanian landowners and becomes a nurse during World War II. Augustin is the son of cook who works at Safta's manor; he is deaf and mute, but the two share a communication that transcend speech and hearing.

The story opens with Augustin arriving in Iasi, looking for Safta. He manages to find the hospital where she works and crumbles on its doorstep. Augustin is very ill, and he is rushed inside the hospital for care. Safta learns that a deaf and mute man has been admitted, and her suspicions are confirmed - it is her long lost friend.

The story then goes back and forth between Augustin's recovery, and memories of Safta and Augustin's childhood. Augustin communicates through drawing pictures, and Safta gives him paper and pencils so he can tell what happened to him after the war started. Slowly, Harding paints a picture, through Augustin, of how World War II and the arrival of communism affected Romania. In a span of a few years, Romania went through great upheaval, affecting the lives of every citizen - rich and poor.

Painter of Silence starts slowly, working steadily through small crescendos until the reader learns the full histories of Augustin and Safta. The last 100 pages are captivating, and the ending has a small twist that ties a few loose ends. It was a cerebral story, and comparisons to the writing style of Michael Ondaatje are spot on. There is strength in silence, and the quiet aspect of Painter of Silence makes it a novel not easily forgotten. I recommend Painter of Silence to fans of literary fiction and the Orange Prize. (  )

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright (Jill)

The Forgotten Waltz
By Anne Enright

Had The Forgotten Waltz not been nominated for the 2012 Orange Prize, I probably wouldn't have read it. When I read The Gathering by Anne Enright, I found it to be such a bleak novel; I was not in a hurry to read something by Enright again. Thankfully, The Forgotten Waltz was a better reading experience.

At the core of this novel is an examination of modern marriage. Gina is newly married when she meets one of her sister's neighbors, Sean. Over time, Gina and Sean begin to have an affair. When Gina's mom died suddenly, Sean and Gina become  little less careful about their secret, and eventually, they must make decisions about their marriages and their own relationship.

Sean has a daughter, Evie, who experienced unexplained seizures as a child, leaving Sean's wife, Aileen, overprotective and nervous. Enright does a commendable job showing the strains an unhealthy child can have on a marriage. Furthermore, Enright taps into the difficulties of becoming involved with a person who has a child. As the story progresses, Gina realizes that she will always be second to Evie's needs. She must decide if she can live with that.

Gina is an interesting character. If I knew her in real life, I would have to plan an intervention. She is fallible and borderline delusional about her relationships - not only with Sean, but with her husband, sister and deceased parents. She reaches for cigarettes and alcohol a lot, but what she really needs is a good therapist.

All in all, The Forgotten Waltz was a solid read that explored relationships, love and marriage. It just goes to show you: sometimes you can't judge an author by just one book. (  )

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Submission - Wendy's Review

 “[...]The attack made everyone afraid of appearing unpatriotic, of questioning government leaders. Fear has justified war, torture, secrecy, all kinds of violations of rights and liberties. Don’t let it justify taking the memorial away from Khan. Everything these past couple of years has been about abdications. Don’t succumb to the fear; don’t mistake the absolutism of Khan’s opponents for morality…” -from The Submission, page 226 -

Two years after the 9-11 tragedy, a group of jurors has been selected to choose a memorial design to occupy the space where the twin towers once stood. The jurors include art critics and one family member still reeling from the death of her husband. The submissions are anonymous to the jurors – they have only the designs and no names to make their final decision. After a contentious process, one design is finally chosen and the name of the designer is finally revealed…Mohammad Khan, an American born Muslim. Khan’s selection ignites a firestorm of protest. Should a Muslim be allowed to design this memorial which touches the hearts of so many Americans? Does one’s religion define who they are? Thus begins Amy Waldman’s provocative and deeply emotional novel.

Told in multiple points of view, The Submission takes a searing look at one of the most traumatic events in American history and examines our prejudices and fears seated in religious ideology, patriotism, and collective grief. Claire Burwell, the lone family member on the jury, is a complex character who initially fights for Khan’s design. But political pressure and media propaganda work on her emotions, making her doubt her convictions. Khan himself is an enigmatic character – a man who doubts his religion and then discovers it matters not what he believes so much as the label attached to him.
What was he trying to see? He had been indifferent to the buildings when they stood, preferring more fluid forms to their stark brutality, their self-conscious monumentalism. But he had never felt violent toward them, as he sometimes had toward that awful Verizon building on Pearl Street. Now he wanted to fix their image, their worth, their place. They were living rebukes to nostalgia, these Goliaths that had crushed small businesses, vibrant streetscapes, generational continuities, and other romantic notions beneath their giant feet. Yet it was nostalgia he felt for them. A skyline was a collaboration, if an inadvertent one, between generations, seeming no less natural than a mountain range that had shuddered up from the earth. This new gap in space reversed time. – from The Submission, page 32 -
Waldman includes several engaging characters including a rabid journalist who is willing to twist the truth for a story, a power-hungry politician who finds the controversy is very good for votes, a radical anti-Islamic extremist, and a Muslim woman who is in America illegally and who is mourning her husband who worked as a janitor in the doomed towers.

This is an affecting novel which uses one question to propel its complicated plot. I found the title itself to be fascinating as it alludes to not only the design which is “the submission,” but also examines the process of judgement and the struggle for a common ground which unfurls throughout the novel. Synonyms for the word submission include: appeasement, assent, backing down, giving in, humility, resignation, and surrender. And, indeed, these are words which resonate in the story. Khan is forced to examine his motivations for submitting his design in the face of pressure to step down and give up the commission.

Waldman also explores creative inspiration. From where do our artistic renderings come? Is inspiration a simple process, or does it encompass experience, ideology and something less tangible which is difficult to define? Some characters in The Submission insist on labeling Khan’s design as anti-American and read intent where none may exist. Khan himself seems, at times, to wrestle with the origins of his work – what exactly was the inspiration? 

The Submission is compelling fiction and would be a terrific book club choice. It was recently nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction and I believe it deserves that nomination. Waldman writes with clarity and passion and challenges readers, especially Americans, to look deep within themselves about essential questions related to religion, politics and fear.

Highly recommended.
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Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Jill)

The Song of Achilles
By Madeline Miller

Good news! You don't have to be an Ancient Greek expert to read The Song of Achilles! For those of you who wondered, rest assured: Madeline Miller maneuvers her readers through  Ancient Greek lore like a skilled driver. Having advanced degrees in the Classics certainly does help, but her writing style is easy and digestible. I could even keep track of the names (a small miracle for me).

 Now for the "meh" news: I wasn't enamored with The Song of Achilles like I thought I would be. I was hoping for a five-star, knock-my-socks off read. (Note to self: Stop reading so many reviews before selecting a book). Why? Because many book-loving friends raved about The Song of Achilles. As a result, I set my expectations too high. 

The Song of Achilles focuses on the relationship between Achilles and his lover/soul mate/best friend, Patroclus. Patroclus was exiled from his kingdom as a young boy and sent to live with King Peleus, who was Achilles' father. Eventually, Achilles and Patroclus struck up a friendship, which, over time, turned into a deep romance. The entire story is told through Patroclus' eyes, and through his perspective, we learn about Achilles the boy, the soldier and the man.

I applaud Miller for this ambitious endeavor: to tell the story of Achilles and the Trojan War through a fresh perspective. In my opinion, she accomplished it very well, especially for being a young writer. She made each character come alive - to the point where you love or hate them.

Where I think The Song of Achilles lacked for me was the pace. It dragged in parts. A lot of pages were spent on Achilles growing up, and some of it wasn't that interesting. When we finally arrived at the Trojan War, I just wanted to press the fast-forward button. I realize Miller needed to build up some tension, but I think she lost me along the way. When the prophecy was fulfilled and the inevitable fates occurred, the story still continued! Stick a fork in me: I was done.

In the end, The Song of Achilles was a good book. I would recommend it to readers who love historical fiction, especially ancient history. If you're against same-sex relationships, this is definitely a book to skip. Madeline Miller is a young writing talent, and I hope she continues to hone her craft. I expect we'll see even more brilliant stories coming from this gifted writer. (  )