Friday, June 27, 2014

Reason #27 Not to Play with Dead Rats

In 1665, England had a problem.  People were dying of a mysterious disease that no one knew how to stop.  It started in London, so of course anyone with the means left the city.  By leaving, however, the Londoners took the plague with them to the neighboring villages and towns.  One village, Eyam, found the plague to be within its borders, and took the drastic step of quarantining itself.  It is in this village that Geraldine Brooks sets her story, Year of Wonders.

In Year of Wonders, Anna is a young widow and mother who takes in a boarder to help her make ends meet.  The boarder is a tailor who travels outside of the village on a regular basis.  Soon he falls ill and dies, directing Anna to burn all of his unfinished work, for fear that it has been contaminated.  After other villagers begin to die, they realize that they have been overtaken by a plague.  They make arrangements with a neighboring town to keep them supplied with goods, provided that they do not leave the village and risk infecting others.  This quarantine is the idea of the rector, Michael Mompellion.  Time passes and more and more villagers die, causing them to question their decision and their leader.

While I was listening to Year of Wonders, I kept wanting to yell to the characters "Now go wash your hands!  Right now!  With soap!"  They didn't listen to me, but in reality, it may not have mattered if they had.  The thinking now is that the plague was spread through flea bites.

Although this sounds like a terrible book, in the first chapter Brooks introduces us to characters who  lived through the disease, and mentions some who died.  It is definitely more a story of survival than a story of tragedy.  I have read all of Brooks' novels, and Year of Wonders is probably my second favorite, behind People of the Book.  Other Brooks novels that I have reviewed on this blog are March and Caleb's Crossing

Year of Wonders was a NYT Notable Book for 2001.  For the Challenges, this one is a triple countsie - Rewind, Audiobook, and I Love Library Books.

Next Up on CD:  Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood

Still Reading (and Loving!):  The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Water Under the Bridge

We are Water by Wally Lamb is a story showcasing the cycle of violence that results from abuse.  Damaged people damage other people again and again.  The primary storyline involves Annie, who is a mother of three grown children, and who has recently determined that she is a lesbian.  As an artist, Annie plans to marry the gallery owner who promotes her work.  Annie is one of the above referenced damaged people who perpetuates the cycle within her family.  Annie's ex-husband, Orion is oblivious to the trauma that his wife faced as a child, and equally clueless as to what has happened in his own home, even though he is a psychologist. 

The most interesting part of the book is the story of Josephus Jones, a black artist who lived on Orion and Annie's Connecticut property years before they did, and died by "falling" into a well.  Josephus was based on Ellis Ruley, a black artist who was married to a white woman, and who also died mysteriously in the 1950s.  Unfortunately, Josephus is only a small part of Water

Another part of Water that Lamb took from real life is the story of how Norwich, CT flooded in 1963.  That night forever changed Annie's life.  From this article, it is clear that Lamb took the details of his story from accounts of what happened that night.  Lamb, himself, was there and lived through the flood as a 12 year old.  After reading the article, however, I have to wonder how Lamb's neighbor who is interviewed for the article feels about being turned into a fictional pedophile by Lamb.

In Water, Lamb is very explicit in describing the sexual abuse of children.  So vivid, in fact, that I have to wonder if he has crossed over the line that separates literature from the realm of something that might stimulate a person who is aroused by children.  Am I saying that Water is kiddie porn?  Not quite.  But whatever it is, I could do without.

The Typical Book Group is right.  The characters are not likable, and the pedophile story line was over the top.  If Lamb had stuck to the real stories of Ellis and the flood, and maybe spent some more time on the art theft plot instead of the stories of abuse, I would have liked it better.

One more down for the I Love Library Books and the Audiobook Challenges.

If you are interested in winning some free books, there is a Literary Fiction blog hop going on right now.  I'm not participating, but I did enter a few of the giveaways.  To get to it, visit River City Reading, and click through the list of participants.  You can enter to win on every blog.  Good luck!

Next up:  The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Typical Book Group Report - 21

It was sort of a strange book group meeting last night.  There were 7 of us there, and only three people had finished reading the book, We are Water by Wally Lamb.  I was about 1/3 of the way through, and a couple of others had read the first chapter or two.  Our host, Barb, apologized for the selection.  But, the three of them who had actually read the whole book couldn't stop talking about it.  They were very courteous about not spoiling it for the rest of us, but they clearly had a lot to say, even if they didn't love the book. 

The chief complaint was about the chapters told in the voice of Kent.  They felt that the pedophilia was much too graphic, and from the amount that I've read, I agree.  They also felt that there wasn't a character in the whole book that they liked as a person, and that most of the stories ended sadly. 

Well, they can't all be winners.  I have to say that I am liking the book more than I expected to.  I'll post more about it once I finish.

We won't meet again until the end of the summer.  Each year, we pick a Big Fat Book (BFB) to read all summer long.  Quite a few long books have come out since last summer, but we wound up picking one that was first published in 1982.  It is . . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer.  The Times HATED it, but apparently the American public of the 1980s loved it.  I'll keep you posted!

For now, I'm still reading and listening to We are Water by Wally Lamb

Sunday, June 15, 2014

An Imperfect Life

Tom Rachman knows how to create a character.  His first book, The Imperfectionists, was a novel told through short stories of various people who work for or are devoted to a newspaper, The Paper.  Each character was related to the others in some way, but each was a fully developed person, with an interesting life away from The Paper.

His second book, The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is a character study of a woman named Matilda, including her childhood and the odd collection of people who raised her.  The action is set in 1988, when Matilda, who is also called Tooly, is 10 and living with Paul, in 1999 when she is 21 and living with Duncan and Humphrey, and in 2011, when she is an adult woman running a small book store in Wales.  Tooly has lived throughout the world with Paul, Sarah, Venn, Humphrey, and Duncan, but her relationships with all of these people are tangled, and never quite what they seem. 

Tooly sees Sarah as a glamorous if flighty woman, who is unreliable, but is also constantly popping up.  Venn is a worldly charmer who Tooly seeks to emulate and impress.  Humphrey is an old immigrant who Tooly feels she needs to take care of.  Ultimately, Tooly comes to understand who it is who can be counted on, and who will disappear when she needs them most. 

This is a book of bad decisions and painful regret.  It's a book of exploitation and opportunism.  But throughout it all, Tooly doesn't dwell on what she should have done or what others should have done for her, and instead is persistently moving forward in the best way that she can figure out.

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers  is constantly shifting between the time periods, with chapters confusingly called things like "1988:  The End", which is the 4th chapter of the book, even though there are 7 more chapters that come later that are set in 1988, and another chapter called "1988:  The End."  If you can surrender to the confusion and just roll with it, a great story with memorable characters will unfold.  Based on the recent NYT review, my guess is that this one will make the list of Notables for 2014!

I requested and received a free electronic copy of this book from NetGalley.  Thanks to Jess Bonet of Random House for making it available to me.  Other than the book, no promises were made and no payments were received.

Next Up:  Next I am tackling We Are Water in paper form, in addition to audio.  My book group is meeting to discuss this one in just 2 days, and I'm only half way done! 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Gatsby Continued

So, when I was helping my son study for his test on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, I somehow came across a summary of The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian.  The blurb said that in The Double Bind, Tom and Daisy have a son after Fitzgerald's novel ends.  The son grows up and falls on hard times, finally dying as a homeless man with a collection of pictures of famous people, including Gatsby himself.  Now they had my interest.  Gatsby is one of my all time favorites, and I'd love to know what Tom and Daisy did after the last page was turned.

The Double Bind begins with Laurel talking about a time that she was attacked by two men in the woods and almost raped seven years earlier.  In the present day, Laurel is working at a homeless shelter in Vermont.  A man who she knows from the shelter, Bobbie Crocker, dies leaving a cache of old photos.  The pictures include some of Laurel's swim club from her hometown  of West Egg, and one that might be of Laurel herself.  The director of the homeless shelter thinks that the photos may be good enough to put together a show as a fundraiser.  She assigns Laurel to print more photos from the negatives and get the pictures ready to display.  Laurel takes on the project with more enthusiasm that anyone expected.

Early on in the project, Laurel begins to think that Bobbie might be Tom and Daisy's son.  She travels to East Egg to meet with the woman who she thinks must be Bobbie's older sister, Pamela Buchanan, only to be told that Pamela's brother had died decades earlier, and could not possibly be Bobbie.  While trying to prove the connection and figure out why Pamela would deny it, Laurel meets with people who knew Bobbie, and learns more about his story. 

It was a little disconcerting at first to have Laurel taking about going home to visit West Egg.  It was  like saying that she was going to Neverland.  But of course, since Gatsby is fiction to begin with, why couldn't a later story be set in the same towns?  I was also a little annoyed that so much of the story was about Laurel and her attack.  I really wanted to hear more about the West Egg of Gatsby's era than about Laurel in the modern day.  At the end the plot took a major twist that was satisfying, but disappointing at the same time.  It was satisfying in the sense that the ends were tied up, and I finally understood why there was so much focus on Laurel, but disappointing in that what I wanted to happen didn't. 

The Double Bind has a basis in real life, in that the novel was inspired by a man, Bob Campbell, who was homeless in Vermont, and died leaving great pictures of famous people behind.  I'm counting this book for both the Audiobook and the I Love Library Books Challenges.

Next up on CD:  We Are Water by Wally Lamb

Still Reading:  The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Great House Redux

In February of 2011, when I first read Great House by Nicole Krauss, I tore through it in 6 days, and as soon as I finished, I wanted to read it again.  Finally, this year, I did. 

Great House is the story of an enormous desk, and the people who owned it through the years.  Sort of.  It is told through four different stories, and each story has two parts.  I described the stories in 2011, and I hate to repeat myself, but the shortest synopsis of the stories is this.  "All Rise" is told by Nadia.  She is a writer who received the desk from a person named Daniel who later disappears under ominous circumstances.  She turns the desk over to Leah.  "True Kindness" is a great father-son story showing the distance that can grow between two people.  The son, Dov, wanted to be a writer, but his father so discouraged him that he became a judge instead.   The third story is "Swimming Holes".  This is the story of Lotte, who is a writer, and her husband, Arthur.  Lotte escaped the Holocaust as part of the Kindertransport, and she doesn't like to talk about that part of her life.  When Lotte gets Alzheimer's late in her life, she inadvertently lets Arthur in on some important secrets that she has kept for years.  Where Lotte got the desk is a mystery, but she gives it to Daniel.  The final story, "Lies Told by Children" is of Izzy, and her strange relationship with Yoav and his sister, Leah.  Their father, who is called by their surname, Weisz, escaped the Holocaust, but his family's home was ransacked, and his father's desk was stolen.  It is his life's purpose to reclaim all of the items stolen by the Nazis and the family's opportunistic neighbors.

When I first read the book, I was left with lots of questions.  I wanted to find the connections between the characters that I knew that I had missed.  This time, I did everything differently.  I read the book quickly in 2011.  Instead of going even faster on the second reading, I took more than twice as long, and read with a pencil in hand.  I underlined every name, eye color, and year.  I made parallel time lines for each story inside the front cover of the book, and kept checking them.  And after the first story, I was embarrassed.

It was so obvious!  How could I have missed it?  Clearly, Daniel was Leah and Yoav's father, who just used a different name with Lotte and Nadia.  It was plain as day that Lotte was his mother.  Until I read further, and it was clear that she was not, and he was not.

After my second reading, with attention to detail, notes and time lines, I still feel like I have missed the connections.  Don't get me wrong.  The novel is great, and it isn't confusing.  I just feel like there are clues and I am still not seeing them.  My best guess after the second time around is that Lotte and Weisz were siblings or cousins who lost each other in the war.  Daniel is related to both of them.  Maybe he was a descendant of another sibling.  It's possible that he was a nephew to them both, or a descendant of a cousin.  I don't have a good connection to the "True Kindness" characters, other than to speculate that the father could have been involved in the theft of the desk somehow or he could have sold the house in Israel to Weisz.  But maybe that's not the point.  Maybe the whole point of the book is that if we look hard enough for connections between people, we can find them, whether they are real or imagined.  It's the Keven Bacon game, times ten thousand.  Maybe the characters are all just people who happened to live near each other or are unrelated owners of a desk.  Maybe Lotte put an ad in the newspaper that she had a desk for sale and Daniel saw it.  Nothing more.

This is the first book that I read for the Year of Re-Reading ChallengeGreat House was a NYT Notable Book for 2010.

If you are reading this before June 13, 2014, don't forget to click here to enter to win the audiobook of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

Next Up:  The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

Still Listening to:  The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian
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