Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Year in the Life

Sometimes what leads me to a book is a straight line, sometimes it's a long twisted path, but this time it was somewhere in between. I loved David Mitchell's “Cloud Atlas', so I tried “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” but I just couldn't get into it. So much for David Mitchell, said I. But then I listened to the podcast of the Slate Audio Book Club where they discussed “Cloud Atlas”. (These podcasts are very entertaining, and I loved the latest one where they discussed “”Pride and Prejudice” on the occasion of its 200th birthday). They enjoyed "Cloud Atlas", but all of them said that their favorite Mitchell book was Black Swan Green, so I decided to try it.

What! Another coming-of-age novel told in the voice of a thirteen-year-old boy? Why I am reading this? But I was hooked immediately. The chapters, each about a month apart, recount episodes in Jason Taylor's life in Worcestershire in 1982 . They don't initially seem to tie together, but they slowly reveal Jason's world and his view of it. He is a sharp observer, perhaps because his stammer makes him wary of talking too much, but also because he is acutely aware of the thin and shifting line that separates a thirteen-year-old from being part of the crowd to being the object of bullying. He has secret aspirations to write poetry, and some of his prose reflects his attachment to the lyric and mystical in nature. But he can also be snarkily funny, keenly observant of the odd characters that are part of small town life, and sharply critical of his parent's crumbling marriage.

If you've been put off by complicated, mannered style of Mitchell's previous works, I highly recommend that you spend a year with Jason Taylor.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Home Again, Home Again

There was a time in 2009 where it felt as if everyone I knew was reading “Olive Kitteridge”, Elizabeth Strout's book about the residents of the small community of Crosby on the coast of Maine. Strout created a series of interlocking stories, some in which Olive is the main character and others in which she stays on the periphery, which sketched with deft strokes the strengths, the flaws, and the complicated inner lives of various residents.

In her latest book The Burgess Boys Maine itself, specifically Shirley Falls, becomes one of her characters. The Burgess boys – Jim and Bob – are in fact grown men, and both have long ago fled Maine for New York, where Jim is a powerful lawyer and Bob is a struggling Legal Aid attorney, always in the shadow of his more accomplished and successful older brother whom he idolizes. Only Bob's twin sister Susie has remained in Maine, and it is her teenaged son Zach's legal difficulties which draw the two men reluctantly back to their hometown. And their return stirs up memories in them both of the childhood tragedy which drove them to leave Maine.

Literary conventions abound – the native returning home, the love/hate relationship between brothers, the corrosive effect of keeping secrets, the clash between natives and outsiders. But Strout avoids stereotypes to create honest characters, as she slowly reveals the ripple effects of a single tragic incident on all of their lives.