Friday, July 31, 2009

Russian Coincidence

I am currently reading “The Madonnas of Leningrad” (see Dorothea's blog) for our Book Club in August, a story that takes place during the siege of Leningrad. But I always like to have at least two books going at once, so if I get bogged down or bored by one I can switch to the other. So I picked a second book by a roundabout method. I loved the movie “The 25th Hour”, a gritty story set in New York directed by Spike Lee with a great performance by Edward Norton. The movie was based on David Benioff's book, and Benioff also wrote the screenplay. So I chose his latest book City of Thieves, thinking it would be another gritty, urban story. And in a way it is. But the city is not New York, and the time is not the present. The city of thieves in the title is ...Leningrad and the time is 1941. What are the odds?

City of Thieves is sort of the novelistic equivalent of a 'buddy movie'. But in a good way. The unlikely buddies are Lev, a scrawny Jewish seventeen-year-old who has remained in the embattled city in the hopes of defending his country and proving his manhood, and Kolya, a handsome, boastful, charismatic Red Army soldier who looks like an Aryan poster boy. They meet in a jail cell where both fear they are about to be executed. But instead their lives are spared and they are given a perilous assignment by the secret police. Their task will take them from the dangerous streets of Leningrad to even greater danger behind enemy lines. There are gun battles, close calls, brutality, struggles against the relentless cold of the Russian winter, a high stakes chess game. Does this sound grim? Actually, it's not. In fact there are parts, especially in the dialog between Lev and Kolya, that are downright funny.

Benioff is a terrific story-teller. You barely have time to catch your breath after one close call before you're hurtled into the next one. But he also captures well the conflicting emotions of Lev, who narrates the tale, as he comes to grips with his fears, his curiosity and his grudging bond with Kolya. This book is a little dark to recommend as a 'beach read', although the descriptions of long,cold marches through the snowy Russian forests might cool you off on hot day. But I can definitely recommend it as a fast-moving, page-turning thriller with sharp insights on the complex bonds of friendship.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Life is good...and then it isn't.

One of our local independent book sellers here in the San Francisco Bay Area has what it calls a First Editions Club. Each month the store selects a new work of fiction by an emerging author thought to show exceptional promise and talent. The idea seems to be that, even if the selected book does not turn out to win an award, some later work by this author will. Authors in this category include Andrew Sean Greer, Kiran Desai and Junot Diaz. Recent selections have included The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and Telex from Cuba. If you join the club you receive a signed first edition of the selected book at the regular book price. As I have for the most part switched to getting all of my blog reading from the local public library and The Paperback Book Swap (see blog of July 15, 2009), I decided to splurge with the purchase of one book a month. Anything to save myself from one more decision! If you live close to the store you have the option to pick the book up at the store; otherwise for a small additional postage fee, the book is mailed to you.

This month’s book is The Crying Tree by Naseem Rakha. Ms. Rahka now lives in Silverton, Oregon and has spent most of her career as a broadcast journalist and reporter. The idea for this novel grew out of her assignment in 1996 to cover Oregon’s first death penalty execution in more than 30 years. Rahka has chosen to explore this subject for the most part from the point of view of a murdered victim’s family.

Irene and Nate Stanley live with their two children on a farm in southern Illinois. Abruptly, Nate announces that he has received a career advancement opportunity (he works in law enforcement) too good to pass up…in Oregon. They go; the adjustment is difficult. Just when things seem to be getting better, tragedy strikes the family in the form of a murder. The murderer is a local 19-year-old boy. It takes 19 more years, all of which he spends in prison, before he gives up on his appeals and a date is set for his execution. Each of the family survivors has come to terms – or not – during those years with feelings of hate, revenge, justice and guilt. Is it possible to forgive?

At the same time that we are watching the family prepare for the execution, the author also gives us an inside look at the prison preparations and the struggles of the warden to meet the competing pressures of the media, the prison guards, the public on both sides of the death penalty issue.

When I picked up the book, the salesperson in the store commented that it was “a real page turner.” That it is. An award winner? I’m not so sure. But it raises questions about an important topic which deserves our thoughtful reflection not just for our own benefit but for our larger society.

Check out the First Editions Club.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Horse Sense

You know how some children love reading books about horses – “The Black Stallion”, “My Friend Flicka”, “Misty of Chincoteague”? Well, I was never one of those kids. Too much of a city girl, I guess. I couldn't see the point of reading about horses as long as Nancy Drew was still solving new mysteries. So Aryn Kyle's The God of Animals was not an obvious choice for me. But it had one of the best first lines I'd read in a long time: “Six months before Polly Cain drowned in the canal, my sister, Nona, ran off and married a cowboy”. So I decided to try it.

The book is narrated by twelve-year-old Alice Winston, who lives on a rundown horse farm in Colorado with her stoic, hard-working father Joe and her severely depressed mother. (When asked to describe her mother, Alice simply says, “She's sad”.) With her seventeen-year-old sister Nona gone, Alice is left to help her father make ends meet on the struggling farm. To do this he teaches riding to an enthusiastic but untalented rich girl, and allows wealthy, idle female neighbors to board their horses in his barn. Joe pays little attention to Alice, so she spends a lot of time inside her own head, trying to figure out the adults around her. To Kyle's credit these adults are portrayed as complex three-dimensional characters. But it is often hard to believe that a twelve-year-old, even one with an old soul, could make the adult-like observations that Alice does. What's more realistic is her discovery of the cruelty that adults are capable of inflicting, and her realization that she can be cruel as well.

Kyle's descriptions of the stark desert scenery and brutal heat are powerful. Even more powerful are some of the scenes involving horses, including the frank descriptions of separating foals from their mares and the 'breaking' of a spirited horse. This book addresses some dark themes: depression, dysfunctional families, the seduction of money, unfaithfulness, the isolation of adolescence. So I can't recommend it as a 'beach read' or a book for horse lovers. But it is a thoughtful coming-of-age novel by a talented writer.

Friday, July 17, 2009

History Lessons

Author Geraldine Brooks was a journalist in Sarajevo, covering the Bosnian war for the Wall Street Journal, when she first heard about the Sarajevo Haggadah. This rare Hebrew manuscript was created in medieval Spain at the time when the Iberian peninsula was the cradle of culture, art and medicine for Christians, Muslims and Jews. At a time when Jewish (and Muslim) belief forbade the use of illustrations in religious works, the haggadah was a rarity because of its beautiful and elaborate illuminations. Many priceless books had been destroyed in bombings of Sarajevo, and the fate of the haggadah was not known until after the war had ended. It was then learned that a Muslim librarian had rescued the document and hidden it in a bank vault.

These historical facts are the starting point for Brooks's novel People of the Book. She invents Hanna Heath, an Australian who specializes in the conservation and analysis of ancient documents. Hanna is summoned to Sarajevo to examine and repair the precious haggadah. The story follows Hanna as she attempts to unlock the mysteries of the book's past, but Brooks also jumps backward to trace the history of the document. Her method is pretty clever. When Hanna removes the binding she discovers a variety of clues to the book's history – an insect's wing, a wine stain, crystals of salt, a white hair. Brooks creates a story around each of these, working backwards in time from Sarajevo of 1940, when the book was smuggled to the mountains to escape destruction by the Nazis, through Vienna, Venice, and finally to Spain in the fifteenth century when the book was created. Each of these chapters is a short history lesson, and the history is none too pleasant, as the brutalities of anti-Semitism seem to touch everyone who attempts to save the haggadah. Some of these history lessons were effective but there were times when I felt that Brooks was trying to cram too many facts into a small story.

Hanna's own story has its complications as well. Her relationship with her mother is prickly at best, and as the narrative progresses we learn the reasons for this, I thought this was the least interesting part of the book. On the other hand , I loved the detailed descriptions of Hanna's conservation methods, and also the descriptions of how the ancient manuscripts were made, how the paints were mixed, how the brushes were created. There's a final plot twist that seemed a little too cinematic, but overall I enjoyed reading a book that taught me a lot about history I didn't know.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Finding New Homes

I have recently made a wonderful, useful and fun discovery!

The background: Don’t we all have shelves full of books that we have read and enjoyed but, sadly, will probably never read again? Not because we wouldn’t want to read them again but because there are “so many (more) books, so little time.” What to do? Of course we can donate them to the library or other worthy organizations but that seems so impersonal somehow, like abandoning an old friend. But what if someone came to you and specifically asked for one of these “old friends” that you weren’t going to read again? Wouldn’t you give it up…and be glad to do so? And what if you found someone who had a book that you wanted to read…and was willing to give (not just lend) it to you for free? Sound impossible? It’s not. It’s the online Paperback Book Swap (PBS).

That’s really a misnomer because it is not limited to paperback books but also hardcover books and even textbooks.

Without going in to all of the details which you can find on the website, you register online the books that you are willing to give up. If someone wants one of them, you are notified by email. From the site you print out the mailing label. You can even print out the postage so no trip to the post office for postage or mailing is ever required. (With the preprinted postage no matter the weight of the book, you can just drop it in a mailbox or give it to your postal carrier.) Yes, you pay for the postage but that is all that you ever pay. Once your book is received, you get a credit to “spend” on getting a book from someone else – in which case that sender pays the postage to send it to you. And on it goes. For every book you give away, you can get one free in return.

I have been on the sending and receiving end several times now. It is very efficient and well organized…and fun! You can also set up a “wish list” so that you are notified if that book is posted for swap at a later time. I recommend that you go to the website and look at the books offered. It won’t do you any good if your books are claimed but there are no books there on which to “spend” your credits. For people who live in more remote areas I think this is particularly useful. You'll be sending your books off to new homes - and making room for more for yourself. Try it…you’ll like it!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Suspense in the Wilderness

Castle Freeman Jr. has written a novel about the deep woods of Vermont called, “Go With Me”. But it isn’t the bucolic Vermont we usually envision. It is a darker more sinister New England. The protagonist, Lillian, is a young girl who has found herself in a remote town in Vermont living with her boyfriend. But suddenly her boyfriend has fled. The reason he has fled is that the town villain has threatened his life. And now the villain, named Blackway, is stalking Lillian. He has trashed her car, killed her cat, and is following her. But Lillian refuses to be intimidated by this thug. This may sound like a simple “who done it” but in the hands of Castle Freeman Jr. this is a gripping novel written with a wit and restraint that is very impressive.

Lillian needs help because the local sheriff tells her Blackway is beyond his jurisdiction. He tells her if she wants to find Blackway she needs to go to the old sawmill in town. There she finds the town’s elders (so to speak) who sit around everyday drinking beer and discoursing on the local state of affairs, like a Greek Chorus. Whizzer, the leader of this strange group and the owner of the old sawmill, listens to Lillian’s story and sets her up with Nate the Great, a very strong young man who some think is not all there, and Lester, an aging misfit who is very clever. These are two of the most unlikely suspects in the world but Lillian is desperate and they are willing to “go with her”. The three set off for the deep woods to find Blackway. What follows is a gripping tale of suspense peppered with wit and the clever, skillful stealth of these three unlikely allies.

Castle Freeman Jr. has written an intriguing story about the semi wilderness where he lives. “Go With Me” is a small book (160 pages) written with clear, direct prose. The dialog is pitch perfect. The characters are strong and totally real. The story builds with gripping suspense and the author delivers a great climax. “Go With Me” is one of those great finds in literature, a concise, compelling story that is very well written.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Drawing and Storytelling Both

Reif Larsen’s novel The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet is one of the more inventive and imaginative books that you can find. For starters, the physical size of the book sets it apart. Most of the hardback books on my shelf are 6” x 9” but this book is 8” x 9.5 “. So right away you know that you are dealing with something out of the ordinary.

Our hero is Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, otherwise known as T.S., age 12. T.S. is a prodigy who has an unusual and highly developed skill as a cartographer. The author takes advantage of this setup to include on almost every page an example of a map, an illustration, a doodle, a chart, etc taking full advantage of the oversize pages. It makes for a gorgeous, interesting and informative book totally apart from the story. The story too finds its way into the margins.

And the story has an interest. T.S., who lives in Montana, wins an award for his drawings from the Smithsonian Institution. But for reasons explored in the novel he decides that he must leave without telling his family and find his own way to Washington - which he does by hopping a freight train to Chicago. I found the tale of that part of his journey one of the more interesting parts of the story.

Larsen has also given us a bonus of a second novel within this novel. While T.S. is on his journey East, he is reading (as are we) the story of his great-great-grandmother Emma’s journey West. Nice symmetry.

For some reason that I can’t very well explain I was reminded as I was reading this book of The Phantom Tollbooth by Jules Feiffer. That’s a children’s book but it is also the tale of a boy on an adventurous journey.

This book is a visual delight and brimming with facts. Get a hold (literally) of a copy and read it soon. The author will be appearing in Pt Reyes on July 20th. Other appearances and information are listed on his website. Check out the website if only for pulling the rope!

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Simple Story

Why do I love this book so much? I'm not sure. Maybe it's my Irish ancestry that made these characters resonate so powerfully for me. Every word felt true and real and when I got to the end I could easily have gone back to page one and read it all over again.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín tells the simple story of a girl named Eilis Lacey who reluctantly comes to Brooklyn from a small town in Ireland in the early 1950's. She has no particular desire to leave home and her widowed mother, but jobs are scarce and a chance meeting between her older sister Rose and an Irish priest from Brooklyn leads to the offer of a job. Her mother and Rose encourage her to take it, despite the fact that her mother remarks casually to a friend, “Oh, it'll kill me when she goes”. And Eilis, although she feels that Rose should go instead, can find no way to tell them. This feels SO Irish to me – no one can speak directly about feelings.

The story follows Eilis to Brooklyn, where she experiences homesickness that Tóibín describes so beautifully it will break your heart. But she adapts to her job and her life in a boardinghouse full of Irish women, and eventually even finds romance. And when events call her back to Ireland she is torn between her new life and her old one.

Sounds like it could be the plot of a romance novel, right? Trust me, in Tóibín's hands it is something very different. His style is understated and straightforward – no flashy language, no dramatic revelations. There's humor and pathos, sometimes both in the same paragraph, and, like Eilis herself, it's a mixture of tenderness and toughness. I loved this book so much that I'm almost reluctant to recommend it, because I'm afraid its resonance is just personal for me, and won't strike other readers the same way. But Tóibín is a respected writer, so I hope that this book will be enjoyable to all readers, not just this one.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

More Fathers and Sons

I have actually spoken to one person who did not like Out Stealing Horses (OSH) by Per Petterson but otherwise everyone I know who has read it thought it was superb (see blog of April 28, 2008). So I was eager to follow up with reading Petterson’s earlier novel In the Wake. After reading this book I looked up the author’s biography and was totally confused. I thought that I had been reading a book of fiction but in fact it so closely follows the details of the author’s own life centered around a family tragedy that you have to wonder why he chose to write it as fiction.

Like OSH, In the Wake focuses on the family, in particular on the father-son relationship, but in this instance it is a bleak estrangement rather than the love of OSH. In the Wake doesn’t have the lyrical descriptions that were such an outstanding feature of OSH but it is nevertheless firmly rooted in the geography and place of Scandinavia. Young boys almost anywhere can climb trees for adventure but there are not too many places where two brothers can hop on drifting ice flows. Actually a better knowledge of the geography and place names of the Scandinavian countries would have been helpful - but not essential.

Petterson describes a sense of loss and abandonment. In his loneliness he almost verges on madness. He hints of a previous divorce and failed attempts as a writer. But he also reaches out to his daughter and his brother in ways that are touching and almost humorous. In the Wake does not, in my opinion, come close to OSH as literature but taken as autobiography this book takes us into the mind and sensibilities of a very talented writer – something to which we as readers of fiction rarely have access.