Archive for the ‘Literary fiction’ Category

East of EdenI’m a big fan of John Steinbeck. He’s a great blend of philosophical content, strong storytelling, intriguing characters, and an awareness of the effect of the natural world on people. He’s a great and important novelist, with all that implies, but he’s also still entertaining to read. Until recently, my list of favorite Steinbeck would have been 1) Cannery Row; 2) Of Mice and Men; and 3) The Grapes of Wrath. Now I have a new favorite: East of Eden.

East of Eden re-tells the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, but moves the action to California. It starts in Connecticut just after the Civil War, where young Adam Trask goes through a difficult childhood with a domineering father and a violent brother. He eventually marries Cathy, a woman whom he wrongly idealizes. Something isn’t right in Cathy–a modern person would call her a psychopath.

Adam takes Cathy, against her desire, to northern California’s Salinas Valley. There she gives birth to twins, Cal and Aron, but then deserts the family and assumes a much different life, working in and ultimately running a brothel. His fantasy marriage obliterated, Adam flounders, but is ultimately saved by contacts with a neighboring family, the Hamiltons, and particularly with Lee, a Chinese-born man of high intelligence who hides behind a facade of the stereotypes people want to see in a Chinaman. The boys grow up, at first believing their mother dead, then each slowly discovering the family history in their own ways. Cal is the stand-in for Cain, and Aron is Steinbeck’s Abel.

That’s enough plot. Ultimately, one can overstate the allegorical nature of this story. It’s certainly there, but one could enjoy the book without knowing the bible story. Steinbeck adds additional elements to the tale, but is more sympathetic to Cal and his struggle to do good things than he is to Adam or Aron and their sometimes unconsidered idealism. The result is an epic moral tale, but a fun book too, with elements of romance, suspense, and humor.

I loved the characters in this novel, especially the neighboring patriarch and inventor Sam Hamilton and the slyly wise servant Lee, who becomes such an important part of the Trask family. Cal’s internal struggle is fascinating, and even Cathy, for all her evil, becomes something different to a modern reader, an intelligent woman trapped in a world made for men.

Another strong point here is Steinbeck’s love for the natural world of California. It shines through in his writing, even as he recognizes that the natural world can be cruel.

The library owns two film versions of this story as well, both entertaining, but neither quite as good as the book. The 1955 James Dean film is a classic, and still great fun to watch, but it condenses the story somewhat to make it fit into the length of a feature film. There’s also a 1981 miniseries, which does cover the entire book, if less vividly.

Check the WRL catalog for East of Eden

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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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Spectator BirdWallace Stegner was one of the great American writers of the twentieth century. You can’t really go wrong with his books, which are all a little different, but always center on characters that are hard to forget. Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety seem to be his most often mentioned titles, and both deserve the attention, but there are more gems in Stegner’s canon.

Narrator Joe Allston is the “spectator bird” of Stegner’s title. He’s a retired literary agent, unhappy both with the circumstances of his retirement and the way in which he conducted his life. He feels as though he was always watching the parade of life, for instance serving as an agent to writers instead of doing the writing himself. His circumstances don’t help, as he has retired to rural area outside of San Francisco where he sees few people but his wife, whom he loves immensely but but whose familiarity he has come to find overpowering.

When he receives a note from a Danish acquaintance in the mail, Joe retrieves his journal and begins to read about the fateful trip that he and his wife took to Denmark back in the years shortly after World War II. His wife insists that he read the journal aloud, as she didn’t know he kept it. Although it’s about an awkward time in their relationship, he complies. He has put aside most of what happened on that trip for the sake of his marriage, but now it all comes burning fresh into memory.

I don’t want to give away too much of the tale, but there’s a mad scientist theme, Hamlet allusions, dilemmas of wartime loyalties in an occupied country, and plenty of surprises in the plot, something the reader might not see coming in a book that at first seems to be a subtle character piece about the cruelties of aging. Joe might be a curmudgeon, and he might be a spectator, but his life hasn’t been uninteresting, even if he chose not to follow every opportunity. This book is about the choices we make, even if we make them by not choosing.

I also recommend this book in the audio format, where it’s read by the talented actor Edward Herrmann (perhaps best known to modern audiences as the grandfather in The Gilmore Girls) whose intelligence comes through every sentence delivered by a pleasing baritone voice.

Check the WRL catalog for The Spectator Bird

Or try it as an audiobook on compact disc

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sweetA Cambridge graduate gets in over her head when she’s recruited by MI5 in Ian McEwan’s witty and metafictional tale of love and espionage in ‘70s Britain, Sweet Tooth.

Serena Frome (“rhymes with plume”), the daughter of an Anglican bishop, lives a quiet, sheltered life with her parents and sister in England.  Beautiful and clever with a talent for math, her parents, particularly her mother, insist that she study the subject at Cambridge.  Serena’s passion, however, is reading, and if left to her own devices she would have happily pursued an English degree at a small local college.  Her undergraduate studies at Cambridge are a disappointment; although she excelled in math as a schoolgirl, she struggles with her math tutorials.  Despite her lackluster academic performance, Serena continues to read voraciously, eventually writing a book column for a classmate’s literary magazine.  She also develops a relationship with a history student named Jeremy Mott.

Serena’s introduction to the world of espionage begins with a chance meeting with Jeremy’s history tutor, Tony Canning.  Captivated by her beauty and idealism, Canning begins an affair with Serena while grooming her as a possible MI5 recruit.  Their brief affair in the summer of 1972 includes intense tutorials on British politics and history, stoking the political fervor Serena discovered as a student at Cambridge.  The affair ends abruptly, but not before she lands an interview with MI5.

Although she starts her MI5 career performing low-level clerical duties, she soon receives an assignment that draws on her love of reading.  Seeking to influence the cultural conversation, MI5 is funding writers whose politics are consistent with those of the government through an operation with the code name of “Sweet Tooth.”  Serena’s mission is to recruit a promising writer and academic named Tom Haley.  His stories, surreal with a subtly political bent, enchant Serena, and she soon finds herself falling in love with Haley.  Their romance coincides with Haley’s first major literary triumph, but his nomination for a major award threatens to unravel MI5’s carefully crafted scheme.

The opening paragraph of Sweet Tooth not only reveals the outcome of Serena’s brief tenure in MI5, but it also lays the groundwork for McEwan’s audacious metafictional trick.  It’s a risky gambit; why bother reading the rest of the book if you already know how the story will end before you finish the first page?  I thought it worked because it ultimately ties in with Serena’s love of stories and literature.

Some of my favorite moments in Sweet Tooth involve Tom Haley’s stories, particularly the novel he completes after he meets Serena.  These stories within a story help develop Haley’s character and the relationship he has with Serena.  The intriguing cast of supporting characters include Shirley Shilling, Serena’s friend and co-worker at MI5; her colleague Max Greatorex; and Tony Canning.

Wryly entertaining, Sweet Tooth deftly mixes espionage, love, and literature.

Check the WRL catalog for Sweet Tooth

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fidelityI started off the week with Nick Hornby’s collected essays about books, so it seems appropriate to end the week with one of Hornby’s novels. High Fidelty is my favorite, and I recently reread it in ebook form.

As can be seen in his essays in Songbook, Hornby not only loves music, but he can write about songs, performers, and listening to music with affection and understanding. High Fidelity recounts the story of record store owner and occasional DJ, and inveterate list-maker, Rob Fleming. When the story opens, Fleming is making a list of his “desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split ups,” which he then shares with the reader. Sadly, or not perhaps, his current breakup does not make the top five list. But it is his relationship with Laura, the current breakup, that drives the story.

Well, that and music. For Rob–and Dick and Barry, his two employees at the record store–everything comes back to music. They are forever creating and critiquing lists of songs such as “best side one, track ones of all time.” Rob’s list is “Janie Jones” (The Clash), “Thunder Road” (Bruce Springsteen), “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Nirvana), “Let’s Get it On” (Marvin Gaye), and “Return of the Grievous Angel” (Gram Parsons) in case you wondered. These lists and the myriad other musical references provide a sound track to the novel that carries the story along.

Hornby understands how people talk about their interests, music in this case, and how those interests can sometimes slide into obsessions. In Rob’s case, his musical obsessions seem to keep pulling him away from making commitments. It is easy to just keep going back to the shop everyday and not worrying about your relationships.

Like a great song, High Fidelity pulls you in to the flow of the story, has its crescendos and decrescendos, offers some great solos, and finishes with a satisfying cadence. What more could one ask?

Check the WRL catalog for High Fidelity
or try the ebook version

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classicsVolume 22 of the Graphic Novel Classics series contains twenty-three stories and poems written by famous early black authors and poets, including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. Each tale is then adapted and illustrated by notable contemporary black writers and artists including Jeremy Love, who wrote and illustrated the stunning Bayou graphic novel (review here), Trevor Von Eeden, who wrote and illustrated the two-part graphic biography The Original Johnson about the early boxer Jack Johnson, and Mat Johnson, who wrote the graphic mystery Incognegro (review here). With such a talented group of contributors, I had high hopes as I turned the pages of the first story, and I was certainly not disappointed.

Without a doubt, the stories are still as powerful today as when the words were first put onto paper. Sometimes sober, sometimes funny, and always heart-searing, even without the artwork this volume would stand alone as a fantastic collection of literature. But it is the illustrations, framing and woven into the lines of words, that really make the selections shine. Each artist brings their own unique style of lines and coloring to their work, which helps separate the stories from each other in tone and pace. Authors who have multiple contributions have their work drawn by different artists, and the contrast of styles give each piece a different life.

I would be hard pressed to select an absolute favorite among the works, but The Two Americans starts off the book with a powerful, wrenching emotional blow. In contrast, The Negro is simple, beautiful, and cosmic in its elegance. Each of its mere six panels could be justifiably framed and put on a wall as standalone art, something you don’t often get from a graphic novel.

Recommended for readers of poetry, short stories, and/or with an interest in American culture presented by the unflinching voices of those who experience it’s ugliest side.

Search our catalog for African-American Classics.

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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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TheOrchardistTalmadge is a lonely man, living quietly in his orchard, enjoying the quiet rhythms of the seasons and nursing the loss of his mother and the unexplained disappearance of his sister decades earlier. When two feral and visibly pregnant girls steal fruit from his market stall, he is intrigued rather than angry. Talmadge manages to befriend the girls, but only on their own terms. He shelters the girls and tries to protect them from imminent danger, but an evil man appears from their past with shockingly tragic consequences.

A powerful story, deep and quietly told, The Orchardist  entraps the reader into its world.  First time novelist Amanda Coplin breaks tradition by leaving out quotation marks, and telling some events from multiple viewpoints, and she succeeds in creating a compelling novel that exquisitely captures a time (around 1900) and a place (the Pacific Northwest).  But she most effectively captures the lives of ordinary individuals caught in extraordinary circumstances. The Orchardist is a moving portrait of people who are damaged but who remain remarkably resilient. The characters, like real people, would be better off if they could put the past behind them, but also like real people, some of them cannot forgive and they must survive however they can. 

Try The Orchardist if you like to get caught up in a sweeping historical novel with hardship and misfortune, but also with burgeoning hope, such as The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman or Year of Wonders,  by Geraldine Brooks .

I listened to part of The Orchardist and I highly recommend Mark Bramhall’s reading as his gravelly voice captured Talmadge’s gruff personality and the slow unfolding melancholy of the story.

Check the WRL catalog for The Orchardist.

Check the WRL catalog for The Orchardist on CD.

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Beautiful RuinsAs Beautiful Ruins opens it is 1962, and tourists have begun to find the beautiful towns of Italy’s Ligurian Coast, but in a quaint village called Porta Vergogna, Pasquale Tursi has inherited a seldom-visited hotel from his father. He’s laboring to carve a sand beach out of the rocks and create a clifftop tennis court that he’s sure will draw visitors to the Hotel Adequate View (named via an awkward translation). He can see his dreams beginning to come true with the arrival of a beautiful American starlet, only to discover that she has been sent away from the set of the epic film Cleopatra with a cancer diagnosis.

The story jumps forward to the present day, where Claire, a young production assistant, has had her fill of the inane pitches for films and television shows that she screens in her work for Michael Deane, a once-influential producer now sunk to backing lower fare. She promises herself that if she doesn’t hear a good pitch today, she’ll quit her job and take a position as an archivist in a new film museum (even if it is run by the Scientologists). Her last meeting is running late, and her fate seems sealed when two mismatched men finally arrive, one a young man pitching an unfilmable historical adventure called “Donner!” and the other an Italian who can’t speak much English… Pasquale Tursi, now much older and in search of the lost piece of his past.

Walter’s story continues to jump from episode to episode, key moments in the lives of his vivid characters. This kind of story only works if almost every scene is vivid. Otherwise the reader resents giving up a vivid section for one that is more drab. Walter makes it work though, as he stops in with an American singer trying to make a comeback on the fringes of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; with a community theatre production in Northern Idaho; with a cynical American soldier in a Catch 22-like WWII Italy; and on a manic day with a drunken Richard Burton. Like a jigsaw puzzle, each set piece adds a little to the mysterious picture, and the sad but beautiful lives of the protagonists are revealed, the beautiful ruins of the title.

Someday someone will make a beautiful film from this book with great characters, beautiful settings, and equal touches of comedy and drama. You don’t need to wait. Read the book and you’ll soon have a lovely movie vividly screening in your own head.

Check the WRL catalog for Beautiful Ruins

Enjoy Beautiful Ruins in large print

Or try it as an electronic audiobook

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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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Babette from the library’s Outreach Services Division provides today’s review:

Everyone has a list of “Books to Read.” Remarkably, there are titles that seem to remain on “the list” but are repeatedly overshadowed by the stream of newer items added to “the list.” For me, The Cellist of Sarajevo was one of those books. Having just completed this book, I urge you to push it to the top of your list and read it. This story puts a human face on war. It explores how individuals, innocent bystanders, attempt to live their lives in the midst of war, challenged daily to perform basic tasks which can have life or death consequences, and strive to maintain their sanity and a semblance of humanity despite the danger, destruction, and chaos brought into their everyday existence.

Based on a real life event, The Cellist of Sarajevo is the story of a cellist who, in the midst of the Bosnian war, witnesses from his window a mortar attack that kills twenty-two people standing in a breadline. In an act of respect, defiance, or an attempt to bring some peace and beauty to his war-ravaged town, the musician embarks on a daily ritual of playing his cello in the town square, in plain sight of enemy combatants, for twenty-two consecutive days. Also featured in this story are three ordinary townspeople: Arrow, a young woman sniper dispatched to protect the cellist; Kenan, a family man who dutifully procures water for his family and an elderly neighbor; and Dragan, a baker who remains in Sarajevo to protect his home and belongings after sending his wife and son to seek refuge away from the city. The lives of this four-some intersect and have profound bearings on their existence, although each is not aware of this.

The author’s beautiful prose poetically describes the setting, daily existence, and thoughts of the four main characters. The reader is compelled to reflect on each sentence and ponder the images conjured up in his or her mind. I listened to this story as an audiobook, which has the added bonus of cellist Sarah Butcher playing Albinoni/Giazotto: Adagio in G minor, the adagio featured in this story. Whether you check out the audiobook, as I did, or the book, I urge you to push The Cellist of Sarajevo to the top of your list and read it. You will be glad you did.

Check the WRL catalog for The Cellist of Sarajevo.

Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook.  For book groups, it’s also available as a Gab Bag.

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This week’s reviews come to you from the library’s Outreach Services Division, starting with a recommendation from Connie: 

Amity & Sorrow is a fictional story inspired by the events surrounding David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, and Warren Jeffs and the FLDS Yearning for Zion religious splinter sects. The novel begins with a mother and her two daughters, Amity and Sorrow, fleeing their home, until they crash their car and are stranded in rural Oklahoma. A farmer gives them aid, and the women stay because they have no way of getting anywhere else. The story of why they are fleeing unfolds in flashbacks, as the mother, Amaranth, fears her husband (who claims to be God) is pursuing them.

I found the story interesting and repelling at the same time. I thought the author did a good job of making me think about why people are drawn to this religious lifestyle, how it provides a missing sense of community while isolating them from the rest of society, and how hard their day-to-day lives are. I think this would be a good pick for book discussion groups because it makes readers examine our thoughts and feelings about a part of our society that is outside the mainstream.

Check the WRL catalog for Amity & Sorrow

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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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I used to read and re-read this novel over and over again, especially during my college years. It always seemed to be the one I’d pick up when procrastinating or killing time around finals time. Always fascinated with artists and how they each discover a unique personal vision, I felt that this book captured the artist’s internal development and anguish so well. It also dealt with a religious subject that I knew very little about but found very intriguing. It captured the angst of a person responding to his innate passion as an evolving creator while also receiving powerful spiritual messages and under constant societal and familial pressure.

Asher is the only child of orthodox Hasidic parents whose livelihood revolves around service to God and the requirements of their religious community. Asher’s father has a very important job directly reporting to the Rebbe or spiritual leader of their Hasidic group in post-World War II Brooklyn, New York. His father must travel frequently for the Rebbe and expects Asher to behave appropriately and reverently as has always been expected of members of his family and community. It is difficult for Mr. Lev to accept Asher’s insatiable compulsion to express nearly everything he sees and experiences, every emotion or thought, through drawings and images. Even before he’s presented with conventional drawing tools, he is discovered using the ashes from his parents’ cigarettes to create images on paper as early as age four. Asher’s mother, in a position to witness the naturally unfolding quality of Asher’s prodigal gift more directly, seems to embrace Asher’s gift more easily, yet she must enforce her husband’s demands.

We learn in the first few paragraphs of the novel the shocking fact that Asher Lev, an artist of rare talent, has become famous by painting an iconic Christian image in his “Brooklyn Crucifixion” painting despite having grown up as a strictly religious Jew.  How this Hasidic Jew grew up to become an artist who paints Christ on a cross is a very engaging tale, told in the artist’s point of view, and reads much like a memoir. Asher Lev’s act is dramatically symbolic and forges a permanent barrier between himself and his sect and family.

Many would say that the book is hard to finish, with its slower pace, but I found that to be no trouble at all. In fact, I somehow found it to be a page-turner I could not put down late into the night, even when I was re-reading it.

Check the WRL catalog for My Name is Asher Lev.

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Captivated by the pages in Gap Creek devoted to the slaughtering of a hog and the rendering of its fat, I have shown that passage to several people who, after reading that one section, immediately proceeded to read the whole book in less than a day or two.

I was taken aback by how interesting I found it to read such raw detail about a process that I would have absolutely no opportunity or desire to participate in, but the detailed prose made me feel so familiar with the unpleasant work that I could almost smell it. This was the first time I noticed myself so engrossed in a story that I felt as if I could be there, working as hard as Julie Harmon; in fact, I wanted to be able to work as hard as Julie. I would not wish upon myself the hardships or poverty of her turn-of-the-century Appalachian life, but I envied her character’s drive and unquestioning energy to do what’s necessary. Our lives these days are often rife with options, the easy route freely taken without the consequences of starvation or loss of life too common a hundred years ago. I’ve witnessed older members of my family who work with such force and have never found within myself such stamina. Today, I suppose it can be found most often in elite athletes, willing to push their bodies to their absolute limits.

Even in Julie’s day, and among her family members, she is an uncommonly strong and intensely diligent workhorse, so much so that this quality stands out more than beauty for good-looking Hank, who stuns her by offering his proposal of marriage. Their married life proves to be fraught with unforeseen challenge and misadventure. At times, it seems that their life could not possibly get worse but then it surely does. The reading of Gap Creek is an experience you will not forget or regret.

Look for Gap Creek in the WRL catalog.

I eagerly await the upcoming release in late August of the follow-up novel, The Road from Gap Creek.

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leopardsHow much more unreliable can a narrator be than one who doesn’t even tell readers his name?  One who frankly confesses throughout his story that he steals identities, forges work for other people, cheats his best friend, and writes a novel about an unreliable narrator who frankly confesses, etc., etc.

Kristopher Jansma sustains this difficult literary trick throughout his first novel.  Our nameless guide tells us the tale of his thwarted literary career from his first completed story (thrown in the trash by a detective investigating the death of an old man) through his final manuscript.  Along the way he commits a series of petty criminal acts that keep him questionably employed and replete with material he just can’t form into a book.

His life is overshadowed by frustration: there’s the flight attendant mother who leaves him in the care of various shopkeepers on the concourse of the Raleigh airport, a sports career and college opportunities stifled by a lack of resources, a lack of contacts and resources to support himself as he tries to develop his talent.  He has two chief frustrations, though: his best friend/literary competitor Julian McGann, who has everything he lacks, and Julian’s friend Evelyn, a beautiful and talented actress with the world at her feet.  Evelyn toys with his love for her, while Julian drinks himself into a stupor and an endless series of one-night stands with strange men.  When this unlikely triangle collapses, he is thrown out on his own.

Stumbling out into the world he practices his only skill – writing fiction – on other people, taking up and discarding identities to move himself from one tenuous living to another.  Staying barely ahead of his collapsing lies, he travels across the world until destiny seems to take a hand in his affairs.  The novel ends on a high note, bringing the reader right back to an odd message printed in the front material.

Jansma has written a stellar work of metafiction, with enough sleight-of-hand to make the reader wonder if somewhere along the way he has misread some aspect of the events or characters (Was it golf he played, or tennis? What was that person’s real name?).  Some of the settings border on the fantastic, making us wonder if they actually existed.  And there is at least one character we pity, because she is not privy to the truth of the narrator’s world.

That is not to say that the work is some self-conscious experiment in LITERARITUDE.  It is an engaging, often funny, and sometimes tragic story told by a man who is upfront about his dishonesty and lies, but who has no intention of causing harm. Despite his flaws, he rises to the occasion and proves himself heroic in his own small way, and as the book ends, I guarantee that you’ll turn back to the first page.

Check the WRL catalog for The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

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