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Archive for the ‘Language Focus’ Category

armsI frequently confess in these pages my bypassing of the great works of Western literature, of which A Farewell to Arms is undoubtedly one.  In this case I think I have a good reason: my best friend in high school became a Hemingway fanatic, quoting from Carlos Baker’s collection of Hemingway letters, insisting that we couldn’t use straws to drink our Coke because that isn’t what a “Hemingway man” would do, pulling non sequiturs from the stories into our ordinary conversations.  I dutifully read The Sun Also Rises for English class and completely didn’t get it, but I also knew I’d have to come back to Hemingway eventually.  Then Stephen Colbert’s Book Club “did” A Farewell to Arms (satirically making the most of the same Hemingway cliches my friend was guilty of misunderstanding) and it reminded me of my long-standing obligation.

The book is set during the endless stalemate along the Isonzo River. Along with the unusual setting (few people paid attention to the Italian front), Hemingway took a further step into unexplored territory by giving his main characters a kind of ironic immunity to the war.  Frederick Henry, a semi-autobiographical figure, is an American in the Italian ambulance corps, a witness to but a kind of bystander to combat.  Catherine Barkley is a British volunteer nurse, physically protected from the worst of combat’s random destruction.  Neither is unaffected by the war, but they don’t have the emotional patriotism that binds and drives the Italians.

Combat catches up with Henry, though not in the heroic manner he might have hoped.  Catherine transfers to the hospital where he’s being treated and the two become tender and enthusiastic lovers. Then Catherine gets pregnant and the rehabilitated Henry is sent back to the front just as the Italians are routed in the Battle of Caporetto.  Henry decides to desert to Switzerland, which proves a healing refuge for the two. Then both Catherine and the baby die in childbirth, and Henry learns that his “farewell to arms” does not render him immune from heartbreak and loss.

Superficially, this is a quick read.  Hemingway’s famously terse language is on display, even in the most intimate moments between Henry and Catherine.  His use of the word “fine” covers everything from Henry’s quarters to the wine they drink to Catherine’s idea of herself as wife and lover.  Critics have written this off as Hemingway’s ideal of the taciturn alpha male and a docile female in his thrall, but it seems to me more an inability for either of them to articulate the depth of their love for each other because the war has taught them that their world is a tenuous place.  But a passage where Henry describes taking Catherine’s hair down is rich in imagery and desire that he couldn’t have expressed aloud.  I also doubt that a misogynist detached from his emotional life could have written it.  A fast reader would miss the import of those flashes.

As far as readers go, I didn’t (and still don’t) believe that most high school students have the intellectual and emotional capability to understand the issues that writers like Hemingway wrestled with, and my high school friend was a perfect example of that.  It is only in subsequent years as he’s experienced deep love and the loss of that love, death, disappointment, and the unexpected beauty of a world he did not know as a teen that I think A Farewell to Arms could have the emotional power I as an adult first-time reader experienced.  I hope he finds that same power in the books he’s reading now.

Check the WRL catalogue for A Farewell to Arms

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lynnExcoriating. Funny. Philosophical. Cynical. Crude. Lyrical. Obnoxious. Charming.  Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk manages to be all of these and more in a powerful story that encompasses about five hours in the life of one nineteen year-old boy/man.

It’s Thanksgiving Day, and in Texas Stadium eight enlisted men are sitting in the freezing rain waiting for the biggest moment of their young lives.  Along with Destiny’s Child, Bravo Squad (which isn’t its real name, but that’s what everyone calls them) are to be featured in the Dallas Cowboys halftime show.  Why this particular group of eight?  Because they were involved in a brief firefight in Iraq, Fox News caught in on videotape, and they are now bona fide All American Heroes, complete with medals pinned on by President Bush himself.  A two-week national tour to build support for the war, a few hours with their families, the halftime show, and Bravo is headed back for the war zone.

It’s hard to think of these men as men – they indulge in the timeless adolescent male hobbies of insults, play wrestling, lusting after women, and eating and drinking everything in sight.  There’s no question that Iraq has changed all of them, but Billy in particular has matured beyond his nineteen years.

A restless, somewhat rebellious and indifferent student, Billy was no star in high school, and when he committed an act of vandalism he was told to join the Army to avoid prosecution.  But whatever it was – training, maturing, innate courage – Billy was a leader in the firefight and was awarded the Silver Star.  But he also lost a friend and mentor, and while the fight itself seems unreal he remembers every detail of Shroom’s death.  Now Billy is questioning everything he sees in his country.

Because there’s no question that Bravo is being used.  Used by politicians looking for a cheap way to bolster their troop-loving images, used by the Cowboys’ owner to prove his patriotism, used by a movie producer looking for a big score, used by a megachurch preacher looking for street cred (this guy? Fountain doesn’t exactly say), used by ordinary people to demonstrate their love of country.  All this, as Billy points out, for a bunch of guys making under $15,000 a year.  It’s hard to tell which is the most insidious, but Bravo rolls with the attention in their best All American Hero fashion, revealing their true selves only in front of each other.

In some ways, Billy’s interior monologue sounds a little too mature, but I doubt he’d be able to articulate the things he’s thinking.  He’s observant and aware, understands that there is much he doesn’t know (like how someone can just up and buy a professional football team), and understands just as well that there’s no way he is ever going to move in the rarefied circles of people who attend state dinners with Prince Charles, own huge corporations, or even those who will pay $700 for a leather jacket with the Cowboys logo on it.  He’s also hungry for relationships that mean as much as the love he carries for Bravo’s dead and wounded, and there’s a remote possibility that he may have found it in Texas Stadium.

Billy is an unforgettable character, partially because he has an uncomfortable way of looking at his fellow Americans and partially because the reader wants so much for him to survive and succeed.  Ben Fountain gives him some wonderful lines (“Somewhere along the way America became a giant mall with a country attached.” And of Texas Stadium, “Give bigness its due, sure, but the place looks like a half-assed backyard job.”).  Fountain also renders the conversation of the people Billy meets in a phonetic shorthand offset from the regular text, just as the flow of cliches must sound to someone who hears them ad nauseum.  The story’s pacing makes it difficult to put down – it’s as fast a read as any thriller – but Fountain’s language deserves close examination, or even multiple readings, to catch his observations and intentions.  One warning for those who might mind: Billy and his comrades are pure id – all those insults and all that lust is as crude as you can imagine.

Check the WRL catalog for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

It will also be available as a Gab Bag in April 2014.

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Jacket (1)I’ve written before about a Civil War novel that explores the effects war has on the survivors, but from the Confederate point of view. Although “nostalgia” knows no faction, race, or even gender, authors can explore how time and place affect the treatment sufferers face. Dennis McFarland has chosen to focus on the experiences of a Union private. In doing so, he brings to life such diverse topics as military hospitals, baseball in the Civil War era, and the sacrifices made by one man for the wounded veterans of the Army of the Potomac.

Summerfield Hayes is nineteen years old when he enlists in the Union Army. It is Christmas 1863, and the casualty lists have reflected the appalling toll—after battle deaths at Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Chickamauga and countless others, and losses from disease, there is no false sense of glory. Summerfield’s sister Sarah is distraught when he makes his announcement. The two have relied on each other since the deaths of their parents three years before and are closer than most brothers and sisters. She isn’t the only one unhappy with his enlistment. Summerfield is a star player for the Eckford Club base ball team in that championship year, and the team’s fans want him to continue his pitching and hitting for the club. But Summerfield is disturbed by the way his home life is progressing and determines that enlisting is the only cure.

Within five months of his enlistment, Summerfield is cast into the Battle of the Wilderness, a chaotic clash that marked the first battle between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. The dense woods and narrow roads did not allow large units to maneuver, so the battle devolved into a never-ending series of hand-to-hand clashes. Many of the wounded were lost when the woods caught fire and they could not escape. Comrades were separated and wound up fighting alongside strangers. Summerfield endures the battle but wakes up to find himself alone and wounded, his last memory of a man on horseback ordering him left behind. He stumbles through the woods in search of help but wakes a second time in a military hospital outside Washington. The hell of battle is replaced by the hell of bodies destroyed in every conceivable way, suffering men treated with varying levels of competence and compassion.

Worst of all, no one seems to know who Summerfield is—he is unable to speak, unable to hold pencil and paper. Every attempt to make him speak fails and aggravates his wounds. He has many torments, but few consolations—one is the soldier in the bunk next to his, but who suffers from Soldier’s Disease in addition to his amputated arm. Another is a grey-bearded man who visits him almost daily, reading to him from Dickens, talking to him, and caring for him when the nurses can’t. As Summerfield heads to a crisis—what will the medical staff do with him when he’s cured, will he be treated as a deserter?–the old man becomes his advocate and comforter.

From vivid descriptions of camp life and battle and of New York’s bucolic urbanity, to Summerfield’s internal struggles with his battle injuries, to the way base ball was played—no limit on pitches!—McFarland brings 1864 to life. Innocence sits alongside experience, and compassion goes hand in hand with cruelty, but few people have the clarity to tell which is which.  McFarland does a wonderful job of making that a universal and timeless struggle.

Check the WRL catalog for Nostalgia

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soldierIn one life, Mark Helprin is a writer of fantasy; in another, the writer of fiction that alternates between overwrought and stunning. A Soldier of the Great War is a wonderful realization of the latter.

The story of Alessandro Giuliani, a 70-year old veteran of World War I, is told by the old man himself to a much younger companion. Like the Wedding Guest, Nicolo Sambucca finds himself in company with The Ancient Mariner (although through the Mariner’s charity), where he receives an education in Italian history, politics, and the wonderfully indeterminate study of aesthetics. It is Alessandro’s own story, told by him for the first time as the two trudge across the Italian hills to their separate destinations.

The child of privilege, Alessandro took advantage of every opportunity to immerse himself in art and literature in school, while making time for mountain climbing and horsemanship.  From an early age he also took risks, and each risk prepared him to face more difficult challenges. As he enters his young manhood, he also extends that risktaking to courting women, with whom he falls in love easily.

Since the story takes place in the first part of the Twentieth Century, and since the title references The Great War, we know that Alessandro is headed into the maw of World War I. Although he joins the Italian Navy, he winds up serving both in trenches and on mountaintops, and fighting against both the Austro-Hungarians and his fellow Italians. Blown by the winds of fate and battle, he travels from the Mediterranean to Vienna, from lonely outposts to crowded hospitals, and through despair, love, rapture, and loss before finally returning to his beloved Rome.

But Alessandro’s destiny is not always as random as it seems.  Back in Rome, a twisted dwarf named Orfeo Quatta is pulling strings that affect Alessandro’s life and the lives of hundred of thousands of men. The senior clerk in the Giuliani family law firm, he was displaced by the typewriter but wound up at the Ministry of War, where official documents are still executed in skilled penmanship. But Orfeo is the only person who sees the originals, so he changes the texts to suit his whims, and his revised orders extend the war and increase the suffering of soldiers and civilians.

In his travels, Alessandro meets many people, but Helprin succeeds in creating in each a layered character who instructs Alessandro in his search for beauty. Despite the senseless violence, cruelty, and degradation of the war, Alessandro’s search for beauty, and for the God he sees in beauty, continues. Helprin captures Alessandro’s life in an effusion of language rich in imagery and philosophy, layered with drama and irony, creating a love story with a hero in love with life and with being in love.

Check the WRL catalog for A Soldier of the Great War.

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curiosityA team of researchers finds something unusual frozen in the ice of an enormous Arctic berg. When they reanimate it, it wreaks havoc on the researchers and breaks loose into the larger world where its existence threatens all of humanity. Sounds like the plot of a science fiction movie, right? In The Curiosity, Stephen P. Kiernan takes that trope and turns it into a love story, a commentary on modern science, religion, and culture, and wistful insight into days long gone.

Although this discovery was an accident, the search that led to it was not. A private research facility run by the imperious Erastus Carthage sent a ship to search for “hard ice,” which forms so quickly that specimens’ cells don’t have time to freeze. Carthage’s theory is that such flash-frozen animals might be revived with a protocol he’s developed and is working to prove. Who knows what he expects as a payoff, except a Nobel Prize and scientific immortality? Having succeeded with krill, he hopes to extend the lifetime and complexity of the subjects he reanimates.

Then a research team led by Dr. Kate Philo finds an infinitely more complex creature and the stakes of reanimation skyrocket. With painstaking effort under dangerous conditions, Kate cuts the ice surrounding the specimen away and discovers a human body, cells intact, a perfect candidate for reanimation. When the “Lazarus Project” is announced, Carthage and his arrogant team of physicians provoke the critics, especially the religious activists, ensuring ongoing attention from around the world. Relegated to the sidelines, Kate and much of her team become a liability for the project but fight to retain some role. Thus it is that Kate is on hand when Judge Jeremiah Rice regains consciousness and moves from his 1906 drowning to a 21st-century laboratory and an expedition into unimaginable territory.

The judge is still a young man, but dignified and erudite in a way that her peers lack, and Kate becomes fascinated with him. She also recognizes that Carthage is keeping Jeremiah a virtual prisoner, and begins sneaking him out of the lab to see the changes time has wrought. As he recovers strength, their expeditions become longer and more elaborate, their conversations more intimate, and their reliance upon one another more profound.

In the meantime, the world wants to know about Judge Rice and claim kinship with him. He becomes a celebrity, with attendant privileges and loss of dignity he cannot comprehend. The nature of scientific and cultural progress becomes debatable among the team members who show him both the dark and light sides of that progress. And aspects of that progress overshadow the Judge and Kate, as we learn in the opening chapters.

Kiernan brings us the evolving story through the voices of four narrators—Kate, Jeremiah, Carthage, and the odious Daniel Dixon, a second-rate science writer given exclusive access to the project. As the book moves to its inevitable conclusion, each character and his or her changes are illuminated through their voices and through the observations of the others. The cast of supporting characters—especially a computer genius/stoner/Deadhead, a cell biologist, and Carthage’s flunky—flesh out the background.

Kiernan does not use Rice’s voice to condemn modern society or praise the past. His role as a judge gives him the poise to deal with contentious issues and people (of which there are many in this more relaxed time), but he also connects easily with those who crowd around him and finds ready allies wherever he goes. His entries are poignant with both the grief he feels for the world and people he left behind, the naive way he approaches the modern world, and his growing feelings for Kate.  (Interestingly, I don’t believe Kiernan ever has him quote Miranda from The Tempest!)

Check the WRL catalog for The Curiosity

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whartonEdith Wharton is undoubtedly one of the great chroniclers of American society, as Alan noted in his blog post.  Although she was part of the class she wrote about, she was fully able to assess the standards and identify the weaknesses inherent in that class, and to limn them for readers of all backgrounds. Her characters, supposedly protected from the vagaries of the world by money and dynastic position, still suffered the anguishes of human emotion that could never be expressed.  Most allowed themselves to be thwarted in their personal desires by the rigors of their class and reputation; hence the tragedy.

Until she was forty-five, Edith Wharton’s emotional and physical life was also stifled by her upbringing and the expectations of her social peers. Married far too young to a man far too old, she established a life apart from her husband Teddy. A devoted Francophile, she immersed herself in Parisian life and culture while Teddy isolated himself in their Paris townhouse.  She created a web of friends—artists, writers, and poets (including her mentor, Henry James)—and a deep intellectual life, while Teddy longed to be at their Massachusetts home as a gentleman farmer mucking about in his wellies.  Their marriage was also widely recognized as passionless, and it seems Edith thought herself incapable of sex. Then Edith left her Age of Innocence for a new Age of Desire.

An encounter with American journalist Morton Fullerton awakened in Edith both an emotional life and a desire that made her risk her position and reputation to be with him.  Although Fullerton himself told Edith that he was sexually adventurous and morally questionable, his seduction of her left her helplessly enthralled.  She even found a way to ship Teddy back to the United States after he suffered some kind of breakdown, which enabled her to fully consummate her relationship with Fullerton.  But what started in a rapture of intellectually challenging romance and sexual awakening quickly devolved into what could only be called a tawdry affair as Fullerton’s true character emerged. When Edith had to return to the United States to look after Teddy, Fullerton dropped his contact with her. Although heartbroken, she still searched him out when she was able to return to Paris, only to find her ardor dampened by his fecklessness and greed.

The details of Edith’s relationship with Fullerton only came to light about 30 years ago, when Fullerton’s cache of letters to and from Edith showed that their perceived friendship was, for two years, a tempestuous romance. Only recently has another collection of correspondence emerged, and author Fields has made full and sympathetic use of both to add a richer element to Edith’s story. Edith’s constant companion, a slightly older woman named Anna Bahlmann, comes to life as a silent witness to Edith’s new world. As Fields depicts her, Anna had started as Edith’s tutor but remained as her secretary, the first person to read, comment on, and possibly correct Edith’s writing.  She was an essential constant in Edith and Teddy’s nomadic lives but so self-effacing that Edith never fully appreciated her presence, and in Age of Desire shifts between treating Anna as a friend and as a servant. In the fiction, Edith sees Anna as a conscience which must be banished so Edith can pursue her newfound needs; only belatedly does she realize what she has sacrificed.  Anna also takes on her own emotional life, as this restrained woman conceals her own ardor towards Teddy, is baffled by Edith’s treatment of her, and falls into an unexpected but unfulfilled relationship.

Edith’s public biography and writings have been known for more than a century; her private story is now well-known, and Jennie Fields’s fictional biography faithfully follows these events.  But she rounds out those facts with intensely atmospheric settings, and conversations plausibly created from diaries, letters, and published writings. From the salon gatherings where reputations were made and broken to the tête-à-têtes where confidences were shared, and even in interior monologues, she maintains a tone of sophistication and wit.  Gilded Age New York, the thrill of travel in Edith’s beloved Pope-Hartford automobile, ocean voyages, the atmosphere of privilege and reflected privilege among the servants—all are brought to life in Fields’s wonderfully rendered language.  Edith’s first sexual encounter with Fullerton is an erotic scene that renders in deep hues what other authors can only achieve in variations of black and white. Since she tells the tale in present tense, the unfolding of these intricate relationships seems immediate.  Historical biography can be difficult to achieve, but Fields does a wonderful job in Age of Desire.

Check the WRL catalog for Age of Desire

Age of Desire is also available as a Gab Bag for book groups

Check out the images of Edith Wharton’s life (alas, with only one indistinct photo of Anna) in Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life 

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nortonI have always enjoyed Brad Leithauser’s poetry. He is one of the “New Formalists,” who have advocated for the use of metrical form and structure in modern poetry, as opposed to those who favor free verse. So I thought it was interesting to come across an anthology of ghost stories edited by Leithauser.

One thing that makes this collection a bit different from the others I have written about this week is that Leithauser does not limit himself to the old masters of the genre. While Henry and M.R. James are both included, as is the delightfully named Oliver Onions, Leithauser also includes pieces from later 20th century writers, including V.S. Pritchett, A.S. Byatt, John Cheever, and Penelope Fitzgerald. In his introduction, Leithauser notes that there are two branches to the ghost story genre, and the two Jameses, conveniently, delineate each  branch. M.R is a master of what Leithauser calls the “plot ghost story” and Henry of the “psychological ghost story.” While I favor the former, Leithauser is more interested in the latter, and the collected stories here reflect that interest.

There are some deeply chilling tales here. Marghanita Laski’s “The Tower” finds a woman seeking to impress her somewhat distant husband by exploring an isolated tower in the Italian countryside, with ambiguous results. “The Axe,” by Penelope Fitzgerald starts off as a memo of a rather routine, if callous, office firing, and devolves into something much darker. Cheever’s “The Music Teacher” explores many of the same themes of Cheever’s novels, infidelity, lost love, and suburban life, but with a darkly supernatural twist.

As Leithauser says about fans of ghost stories at the end of his introduction, “In their bones they know that the universe is unsettling whether it is inhabited by spirits or whether we—lone walkers on a bitter night—are alone in the windy darkness.” These collected stories all capture that sense of unease, and keep you looking over your shoulder.

Check the WRL catalog for The Norton Book of Ghost Stories

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victorianHave I said how much I like Victorian era ghost stories? These atmospheric tales seem to me the perfect autumn reading. The Victorians, as the editors here point out, had a fascination with death, and that extended to their fascination with the afterlife. Think about Arthur Conan Doyle, who invented that exceptionally rational detective Sherlock Holmes, but who also believed in the power of mediums to connect with the dead. It comes as no surprise that some of the best ghost stories written come from this death-haunted period.

Oxford University Press is known for its exceptional anthologies, and Victorian Ghost Stories is an excellent example of their work. The collection brings together a superb assortment of authors telling chilling tales published between 1852 and 1908. Some of the well-known suspects are here, the Jameses, Henry and M.R., Wilkie Collins, and Elizabeth Gaskell among others, but there were also lots of new authors I had not encountered before. I particularly enjoyed “At Chrighton Abbey” by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, where ghostly hunters presage a tragedy at Christmas-tide. Or there is Charlotte Riddell’s “The Open Door,” where a young man makes his fortune by risking his life in an ostensibly haunted manor house. All of these tales create an atmosphere of suspense without resorting to cheap tricks or gory details. The Victorians really were masters of the uncanny.

These would be great stories to read aloud by candle light, or better yet the light of just a fireplace. Let the shadows start to dance on the wall, listen to the creaking as the house settles and the tree branches scrape and scratch, or is that just what you think you are hearing?

Check the WRL catalog for Victorian Ghost Stories: An Oxford Anthology

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dickensEach year about this time, I try to find a set of new horror titles to look at that are eerie without being gory. The sort of book to read when evening comes early and mist hangs on the fields. My favorite scary stories come from the late Victorian period or from those modern writers who carry on that tradition.

“One winter’s evening, about five o’clock, just as it began to grow dusk . . .”

What better start to a story for a blustery autumn evening?  I was delighted this year to come across a new collection of Charles Dickens’ tales of the supernatural. The quote above starts his tale “The Bagman’s Story.”

I love the way that Dickens conjures up characters. His novels are filled with memorable people, often with memorable names, and his short fiction displays the same skill. Here, we meet a range of fascinating people, from Tom Smart— who finds true love and a great pub with the help of a haunted Windsor chair— to Mr. Goodchild, who hears the confession of a ghostly murderer in “The Ghost in the Bride’s Chamber.” Many of the stories here resonate with themes that Dickens explored more fully in his novels: the miser whose lust for money poisons his life, the man who despises others’ joy and cheer until supernatural beings show him the error of his ways, and the young woman bilked of an inheritance by an cruel guardian.

More atmospheric than horrific, these stories can still bring a chill, and cause you to look over your shoulder as you climb the stairs or peer out the back door into the dark night.

Check the WRL catalog for Supernatural Short Stories

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rosewaterToday’s post is written by Jennifer from Circulation Services.

The story of three sisters seems to be deeply ingrained in our human subconscious.  There are the mythological Weird Sisters, the women of Ang Lee’s film Eat Drink Man Woman, and those of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, to name just a few examples.  One could even go so far as to contemplate the “Three Sisters” method of planting beans, squash, and corn, used throughout North America in pre-Columbian times.  The motif is not limited to any single culture, and more often than not, as in Lee and Esquivel’s works, the lives of the three sisters are intimately connected to the food that they cook and enjoy.

Marsha Mehran’s novel Rosewater and Soda Bread is a fine addition to this little niche of a subgenre.  After fleeing their home country of Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the three Aminpour sisters open Babylon Café in the tiny Irish town of Ballinacroagh.  Practical Marjan, the oldest, is trying to keep the café (and everyone’s lives) running smoothly while being pursued by a dashing English gentleman.  Middle sister Bahar bears a heavy burden from a troubled past, but is finding solace in an unexpected place.  And the youngest, Layla, is a Shakespeare aficionado who just wants a little independence from her older sisters – and time to spend with her boyfriend.  As if life isn’t complicated enough, their landlady and former pastry chef Mrs. Delmonico finds a “mermaid” washed up on the beach.  Who is she, where did she come from – and what about the baby on the way?

Much like a rambler in the hilly Irish countryside, Rosewater and Soda Bread is unhurried in reaching its destination, minding small details and occasionally taking detours.  This is part of the book’s charm, though, especially when Mehran describes Marjan’s cooking and its effect on those who consume it.  For (most of) the residents of Ballinacroagh, Bablyon Café’s food and drink are synonymous with comfort.  Indeed, the best word to describe Mehran’s prose would probably be “cozy.”  I would highly recommend settling in with the book on a rainy day, a hot cup of bergamot tea by your side, and letting yourself be enraptured by the charm and intrigue of the Aminpour sisters’ adopted hometown.

Recipes for many of the dishes referenced in the story can be found in the back of the book, something for which I’m very grateful.  I nearly drooled when reading the description of Marjan’s tacheen, a saffron rice and chicken dish: “…first buttered rice and almonds, then fried chicken and sautéed spinach, the yogurt binding them into a brotherhood of delicious play.” Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?  I would recommend this book for gourmands, anyone interested in Irish culture, those who are fascinated by what happens when cultures from thousands of miles apart meet – and by how sharing a meal can help break down even the most seemingly insurmountable barriers.

Check the WRL catalog for Rosewater and Soda Bread

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hoegAlthough I most frequently read mysteries, fantasy, 19th century novels, and Southern fiction, something keeps bringing me back to Peter Høeg’s writing, though these stories in many ways fall outside my usual scope. While Smilla’s Sense of Snow was sort of a mystery, it was not particularly traditional, and Høeg’s The Quiet Girl is a peculiarly appealing blend of genres and styles. I think that it is the beauty of Høeg’s writing that keeps me on the lookout for his books on the new fiction shelves.

If you enjoy thoughtful, well-crafted sentences, along with occasional flashes of humor, you will find much to like in Høeg’s most recent novel, The Elephant Keeper’s Children. The novel follows the adventures and misadventures of Peter, the narrator, Tilte, and Hans, whose parents have disappeared off the fictional island of Finø, off the coast of Denmark. The children’s father is a church pastor, and as Peter tells it, his parents are not above manufacturing miraculous events to draw people to their church. With their parents gone, Peter and his sister Tilte set out to find out what they are up to this time, with help from their older brother Hans and a variety of unexpected acquaintances. As in any thriller, help appears when it is least expected, and shifting allegiances make the search even more challenging. Along the way, the pair encounters angry bishops, unstable teachers, a romantic pair of police officers, and terrorists aiming to explode a bomb at an ecumenical gathering. Høeg has an excellent feel for pacing a story, and his characters are all memorable.

But the book is not just a tour-de-force of fine writing. Høeg explores fundamentalism and belief, the power of love, and ultimately the nature of what it means to be human. With Peter as our guide, we come to see the world in a new way, to look for those “openings” that lead us to a better understanding of ourselves and each other, and that allow us to escape from the rooms that we put ourselves in. The title of the book is taken from an “old Indian saying”

In case you wish to befriend an elephant keeper,

make certain to have room for the elephant.

Check the catalog for The Elephant Keeper’s Children

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endingI love unreliable narrators. From the unnamed man in The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards to the clueless John Dowell in The Good Soldier to the layered unreliability of American Pastoral, to the multiple narrators in An Instance of the Fingerpost, the craft is sometimes hard to detect. Sometimes it erupts all at once, sometimes it’s given to us in the beginning, sometimes the accretion of details doesn’t add up. And sometimes, as in The Sense of an Ending, we are left overwhelmed by the possibilities.

Barnes, who deliciously skewered nostalgia in England, England, returns to the same theme, but with a dark and unnerving approach that makes the reader wonder about his or her own past. Tony Webster is in his sixties, retired from an undistinguished career, divorced without bitterness, grandfather to a baby he sees every once in a while when his daughter gets around to visiting. The highlight of his life was probably the extended trip he took across the United States after his undistinguished college career, but that was ruined by the news that a prep school friend committed suicide while Tony was away.

Adrian Finn joined Tony and his two pals in a kind of elite society of scholars, although it’s quickly clear that he is far brighter than the other three, who often mistake facile conclusions and clever tag phrases for brilliance. When the four break away onto their own paths, their friendship becomes something to reminisce about rather than restart. But Tony will cross paths with Adrian again.

While in college, Tony has a few girlfriends, but falls in love with Veronica Ford, a somewhat standoffish, somewhat snobby young woman whose tastes are far more sophisticated that Tony’s. From the heady (and bodily) excitement of their early days, they grow more comfortable with each other, until Veronica takes Tony home to meet her parents. Not long afterward, though, they have the “where is our relationship heading?” conversation, and Tony drops her. Except for one bout of breakup sex.

Fast forward a while, and Tony has a letter from Adrian asking his permission to go out with Veronica. Tony dashes off a witty postcard, and that’s the end of the matter–until Adrian emulates the ancient Romans and slashes his wrists in a warm bathtub. Tony grieves for a while, then goes on with the next forty years of his peaceable life.

Then one day an official letter arrives. It seems that he’s been willed a tidy sum of money and some documents by, of all people, Veronica’s mother. Although the money is easy to collect, Veronica has the documents–Adrian’s diary–and no legal effort can pry them away from her. So Tony searches her out himself and asks for the diary via email. She sends him one page that includes ruminations, a mathematical formula with bizarre variables, and ends with, “So, for instance, if Tony “.   Puzzled by this introductory phrase, Tony presses Veronica for details, until she at last consents to meet him.

The problem with their initial meeting and those that follow, is that Veronica won’t interpret any of it for him. She tells him repeatedly, “You just don’t get it. You never did and you never will.” On their final meeting, she takes him to a neighborhood in London and shows him something that he still doesn’t get. But Veronica also shows him something that blasts his self-image. That witty reply to Adrian’s letter was actually the invective-laced diatribe of a petty boy seeking to hurt the two of them as deeply as he could. So much for Tony’s memory.

What else does he get wrong? What else had he done or not done, seen or overlooked, heard and misconstrued? Barnes doesn’t tell us.  Frustratingly, appallingly, he doesn’t tell us. Perhaps that is why the Intertubes are filled with discussions of The Sense of an Ending, each with a plausible development of the plot, resolution to the equation, and the end of the mysterious sentence. But most of those interpretations are contradictory, because Barnes just doesn’t give us enough. We just don’t get it. We never did and we never will.

It would seem that such an indefinite ending would consign the book to obscurity or subject it to harsh critical reviews. But Barnes’ language is so evocative, so simple, so perfect in tone that within 150 pages he makes an inoffensive nonentity realize the devastating effect he had on many lives. It becomes a powerful story of memory, and of the way we change our memories to meet our own self-image. That may perhaps be an ordinary idea, but in Julian Barnes’ hands it becomes a brilliant novel.

Check the WRL catalog for The Sense of an Ending

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FryFor people familiar with British comedy, the name Stephen Fry is one that often brings a smile to one’s face or mention of any number of British shows with which he’s been involved. Known for his unique look and style, Fry bolsters his reputation as a man of eclectic intellect and delightful humor in this, his second autobiography. Before getting into details, the author warns his reader of his penchant for wordplay, “rambling” sentence structure and involved linguistics. His vocabulary is broad. There were plenty of words I could not immediately define. Despite what might be considered a complicated text, I found his writing to be engaging and entertaining.

To reveal the twists and turns of his life from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Fry employs an articulate, stream of consciousness writing style, sometimes going off on tangents, but not without reason. I am tempted to say the style is contrived to entertain and amuse the reader, since Fry only ever slips off for a paragraph or two before jumping right back into the middle of his main topic. Plus, when he does drift, he always has a cogent point to make. He’s not really changing the subject, just expanding on it to make the point all the more clear. I wonder if the stream of consciousness style is actually quite practiced and deliberate. Fry admits he enjoys language, its sounds, its formation, and its meaning.

While Fry mentions his childhood and teenage troubles in passing, he focuses this autobiography on his formative late teens and early twenties. He jumps forward and backward on occasion, but much of The Fry Chronicles focuses on his years as a college student at Cambridge and immediately thereafter. It was during college that he discovered his love of acting and comedy overshadowed his enjoyment of teaching. He spent most of his college years either acting in plays or hanging out with other actor friends between performances. It turns out that since college Fry has been chums with modern British comedic and acting luminaries such as Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, and Rowan Atkinson. Upon meeting, he and Hugh Laurie became instant mates and now have worked together professionally for decades.

Fry intertwines his college and post-college shenanigans and adventures with revelations of self-doubt, disappointments, and insecurities. He discusses his obsession with computers, his efforts to pursue a personal form of conspicuous consumption (buying cars, gadgets, a country house, etc.), and his adoration of radio. Fry has an ability to convey thoughts in a manner that requires the reader to pay attention. He incorporates a supreme honesty into his writing, admitting “…the business of autobiography is at least to strive for some element of self-revelation and candour” (pg. 224). The Fry Chronicles achieves this aim as far as I am concerned. This autobiography richly delves into the life and times of Stephen Fry, as perceived and presented by Fry himself. I do hope he pens his next installment soon (as he closed the book on a cliffhanger), but in the mean time I can enjoy this honest, earnest, irreverent, and wholly entertaining autobiography.

Check the WRL catalog for The Fry Chronicles

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seamus-heaneyIt is always a sad day when a favorite writer dies. This morning, came the news that Irish poet and Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney died at the age of 74. We have written about Heaney here at BFGB before, about his masterful translation of Beowulf and his delightful collection Human Chain. I do not think I can describe Heaney’s work better than to repeat what I wrote about Human Chain:

[Heaney] writes thoughtful, thought-provoking, poems that display a love of language and life. Since the 1960s, Heaney has used his poems to explore the natural world, farming and farmwork, the violence that shattered his native Ireland, the intersections of the Irish and English languages, and above all his own place in the world.

Knowing that there will not be a new work from such a wonderful writer makes the day seem dreary and sad. But at least there is a powerful and extensive set of work to go back to. Here is one of my favorite poems from Heaney’s collection Opened Ground.

The Skylight

You were the one for skylights. I opposed
Cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove
Of pitch pine. I liked it low and closed,
Its claustrophobic, nest-up-in-the-roof
Effect. I liked the snuff-dry feeling,
The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling.
Under there, it was all hutch and hatch.
The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.

But when the slates came off, extravagant
Sky entered and held surprise wide open.
For days I felt like an inhabitant
Of that house where the man sick of the palsy
Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,
Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.

Here are some of Heaney’s books in the WRL collection

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vargasI have been enjoying crime fiction in translation a great deal over the past few years. Not only do the stories open up a new window on the world, but they often are very literary in style with a strong sense of character appeal.  In Fred Vargas’s quirky Commissaire Adamsberg series, translated from the French, the focus is definitely on the characters.

Primarily set in Paris, with occasional jaunts to the countryside, and in one book to Canada, the stories feature the Paris murder squad headed by the slow-moving, slow-talking Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg. Readers looking for a lot of action will find Adamsberg’s more meditative approach to detecting somewhat infuriating, as do Adamsberg’s superiors, and occasionally his officers. These are stories about the psychology of crime and criminals as much as about the plot. That is not to say that Vargas is at all weak on plotting; in fact, one of the appeals of the stories is the unique, not to say outlandish, plots, that often center around old French customs and traditions.

The interplay between Adamsberg and his officers is also another appealing feature of the series. Adamsberg truly cares for his squad, despite their unquestionable oddness, and the reader comes to care about them as well.  As in real policing, there is a lot of thinking and talking that goes on, punctuated by occasional bursts of violence.

Readers who enjoy Donna Leon, George Simenon, or Andrea Camilleri will find Fred Vargas a more than acceptable readalike. Start the series with The Chalk Circle Man.

Check the WRL catalog for The Chalk Circle Man

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barkerReading The Plantagenets got me thinking about war and its impact on people and culture, which led me to reread Pat Barker’s magnificent WWI novel Regeneration. Barker’s book is a timely exploration of the effect of war on both society and on the individuals who must participate. The novel is a fictional account of poet and Royal Army officer Siegfried Sassoon’s commitment to the Craiglockhart Hospital following his declaration against the war. Rather than court-martialing Sassoon, the British Army sends him to the care of Dr. W. H. Rivers, who is known for his work with shell-shocked soldiers.

Barker deftly blends these historical characters with her fictional ones. Rivers gradually comes to question his role in curing these men of their insanity only to send them back to their likely deaths. Sassoon is clearly not insane, and his clearness of purpose increases Rivers’s conflict. Rivers was a pioneer in treating shell-shock, and his humane treatment is chillingly contrasted with the electric shock therapy used by another psychiatrist whom Rivers visits near the end of the novel. While Rivers and Sassoon provide the frame for the novel, the story of working class officer Billy Prior (a creation of Barker’s) fills in much of the detail of the war. Barker goes on to explore the conflicts in Prior’s life in her two sequels, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.

Barker’s prose is lyrical, even when writing about the horror of trench warfare, and the question of where sanity lies in wartime is still a pressing one.

Check the WRL catalog for Regeneration

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tomatoHow do some writers create compelling, even heroic, main characters that you wouldn’t want to spend ten minutes with in real life?  It’s a problem for some readers, but I admire the ability, and find that skill translates into forceful storylines.

Tomato Red is the story of four such characters.  Sammy Barlach tells the tale in an uncompromising voice; he does not hide anything from his audience, including his understanding that his whole life he’s been headed for prison or an early grave.  We first meet Sammy when he’s under the influence of crank and breaking into a McMansion to impress a girl. But the high runs out and he wakes to find himself in the company of two seemingly-sophisticated young people who want Sammy to help them with a project.

Turns out Sammy has come into the orbit of Jamalee and Jason Merridew, two of the inhabitants of the lowest life across-the-track neighborhood in West Table, Missouri.  West Table’s chief employer is a dog food factory, and Sammy can’t even keep a job there; Jamalee and Jason have bigger plans to escape West Table and go somewhere where people don’t treat them like the garbage on the bottom of their shoes.  That’s where Sammy comes in.

But there’s trouble with their plan, the kind that can’t be overcome no way nohow.  It seems their only choice is to put themselves into their own places – Jason at the local hair salon, Jamalee waiting tables at the country club, and Sammy doing whatever is left when the dog food factory doesn’t work out.  Even those efforts go awry, and the trio embarks on a cycle of revenge and retribution that destroys their plans once and for all.

The fourth person in the story is Bev Merridew, Jamalee and Jason’s mother.  She’s the kind of woman who learned long ago that for a pretty girl from across the tracks the best solution to life’s steamroller is to lay down.  So she lays down, either with a joint or with a guy who can put some money in her pocket, and lets the rest wash over her.  She even smokes, drinks, and sleeps with Sammy, which throws another sour note into his relationship with Jamalee.  When trouble hits too close to home, though, for once she decides to take action but finds what few assets she has are worth nothing to the important people of the town.

Woodrell’s characters are the very best thing about this book.  Sammy speaks in the cadence and language of a mostly unlettered culture that hasn’t yet succumbed to the uniformity of TV-speak.  Like the forebears who settled in the isolated Ozarks, he has a fierce independence, a fierce loyalty to the people he adopts as his, a fierce temper when crossed.  Jamalee barely contains her rage, knowing deep down that she doesn’t have the wherewithal to leave West Table.  Jason is learning about his sexuality, and it doesn’t look good for him among these rural alpha males.  Bev is earthy, practical, willing, which makes her a favorite among those same men.

I don’t know what it is about this setting, or the people who inhabit it, but it seems that I keep coming back to it, and with Tomato Red, I know I’m in good hands.  The author of the terrific Winter’s Bone (also made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, who was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Ree),  Woodrell’s writing is a reminder that an air of fatalism and a talent for stark storytelling seems to characterize the people of the Ozarks; maybe that’s what brings me back.

Check the WRL catalog for Tomato Red

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guestsHere’s a terrific book for those who can’t get enough of Downton Abbey and want to take that experience into their reading.  Set in Edwardian England, The Uninvited Guests visits some of the same themes of class and deeply held secrets, but adds a touch of strangeness that makes the book feel increasingly Gothic.

Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday celebration is overshadowed by circumstances.  Her beloved house, Sterne (ok, it’s no Downton Abbey, but it is home) is under threat of foreclosure, and her stepfather has to leave, hat in hand, to try to borrow money.  While amiable, he doesn’t hold a candle to her real father, dead these three years.  Her mother is shallow and self-centered, frequently absent from family obligations.  Her younger brother is petulant and resentful.  A neighbor and childhood friend may or may not be paying her court.  And the only people invited to the party are also childhood friends thought of with the mild contempt of those who have not seen each other in many years.  Oh, yes, there’s her little sister, everyone’s afterthought.

None of that tops the final indignity.  A train crash on a nearby branch line strands several passengers, who show up on the doorstep.  Third-class passengers, they are poorly dressed, somewhat smelly, and many are definitely odd-looking.  Since they were sent by the railway, Emerald has no choice but to take them in and give them temporary shelter.  She even gives up her birthday meal – not the cake, though – to feed the ever-increasing number of passengers.  She and her guests scrape the larder to meet the passengers’ demands, and in doing so create a fellowship among themselves that ignites new and interesting dynamics.

Then a lone first-class passenger, Charlie Somebody Something (no one can remember his name) arrives and is invited to join the dinner party.  He gradually insinuates himself into the role of host, dominating the younger people and exposing them to dark and worldly knowledge.  His power over the group is such that he convinces them to play a cruel and frightening game that shatters their tenuous bond and reveals a devastating secret.

The novel slowly shifts into a claustrophobic atmosphere in which all kinds of boundaries fall, including the boundary between the solid world and the spiritual realm.  As the night progresses, it seems that all of the young people reach a moment of revelation that forever separates them from innocence and childhood.

And that younger sister, still in the throes of childhood?  Eleven-year old Smudge has the run of the house and takes full advantage of it to pull off what she calls her “Great Undertaking.”  The consequences of that Undertaking will collide with the family’s responsibilities towards the stranded passengers and bring the evening’s events to a bizarre and disquieting close.

Jones is effective at creating an unsettled feel through her descriptions.  Wherever there is a choice of adjectives she chooses the darkest alternative.  She finds ways to describe the smells of cooking and of wet clothing and candles to bring us into an old and crowded house, and picks characteristics of each person that establishes them in the reader’s mind.  In many ways certain plot points are ambiguous, but reading back over the storyline, you discover that she planted seeds that lead to some kind of answer. Our book groups enjoyed dissecting the story, and many of the readers provided the kind of insights that make other members view it in a new light.

Check the WRL catalog for The Uninvited Guests

It will also be available beginning August 2013 as a Gab Bag for book discussion groups.

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