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Archive for the ‘Literary fiction’ Category

jacketDespite being abandoned by her Danish mother when she was an infant and her Chilean immigrant father’s absence working as an international airline pilot, Maya was raised by her grandparents with spirited enlightenment and fiercely bolstering love. She was propped to have sound character, and her future held so much promise, until her Popo died when she was fifteen. Popo was her Nini’s second husband, but his presence meant the world to Maya. He had promised, “I swear I’ll always be with you.” Popo was a remarkably attentive surrogate parent to Maya, but following his death, whatever threads held her in check were unraveling at an alarming rate. The trio formed with her two girlfriends styled themselves as the “Vampires” and challenged each other to commit increasingly risky criminal acts and venture into dangerous sexual territory. By the time Maya is nineteen and living on the streets of Las Vegas, by the time she phones home, she’s on the run from criminals and the law. As she’s ushered onto a plane to exit the country and ride out the danger, her grandmother hands her a notebook for writing out her troubles as a tool for recovery, or as her Nini says it,

take advantage of it to write down the monumental stupidities you’ve committed, see if you can come to grips with them.

In the audiobook version I enjoyed, as the narrator began speaking in the voice of the 19-year-old female main character in Maya’s Notebook, she sounded far too mature, using unrealistic vocabulary and sounding too worldly. Soon, however, that didn’t matter because I was spellbound by Maya Vidal’s troubled past. She’d experienced complex problems and was running from drug lords, international criminals, and the FBI, and she comes from a highly unusual family; clearly her life was more complicated than an average teen girl’s. She was sent by her Chilean grandmother, her Nini, to Chiloé Island, perfect as a place for banishment or exile, to ride out the danger with an old friend of Nini’s, Manuel Arias. Manuel is a man with a mysterious and painful past as well. The narrative floats easily between Maya’s present in Chiloé and her past in Berkeley, California, then a rehab academy in Oregon, then in Las Vegas where she reaches the darkest pit of her degradation and suffering. Just when you think her story has been told already, it just gets deeper and more layered.

Maya’s Notebook is an Adult Fiction title which would likely appeal to many older teens, but the book contains very graphic scenes of criminality, violence (both sexual and drug-related), sexuality, and extreme drug use. It’s available in the WRL collection via regular print, audiobook on CD, e-audiobook, and in large print.

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hausfrauPoet Jill Alexander Essbaum transits into the fiction genre with the precision of Swiss clocks and indeed Swiss trains — ushering in a new Madame Bovary, an Anna Karenina for the 21st century. Her name is Anna Benz, and she lives in Zürich with the Swiss banker she met in America.
“It’s not just an adage, it’s an absolute fact: Swiss trains run on time.”
Anna doesn’t know how to drive her family’s car. She barely knows a soul beyond her mother-in-law, three children, and a few acquaintances; she maintains no contact with American relatives. Anna barely speaks German, endures life with no fire of spirit, and performs her duties as spouse and parent through unvaried routine, weekly circuiting her usual shopping points. Following initial bewilderment nine years ago, she has mastery over the intricacies of Zürich’s rail network. The author shows us Anna’s clumsiness occasionally, making her so real. She dresses impeccably, even fashionably— her clothes seem to me like an attempt at self-preservation–yet usually has no place to go, no plans, no one to see.
Anna was a good wife, mostly.
Anna has slipped into infidelity, incapable of suppressing the least suggestion by each man in a series of extramarital trysts. She fails to sever these liaisons against her better wisdom. Erotic reverie is a drug that distracts and pacifies her. The narration gradually reveals Anna’s mind, what she’s read, heard or wonders, her moods, her perception of others’ moods. Essbaum invites us into Anna’s hollow soul where we are initially uncomfortable yet intrigued, appalled yet sorrowed, anxious yet horrified at her inability to accept, embrace, or even experience a life many might feel grateful to live. Clearly, Anna withholds details from her Jungian analyst Doktor Messerli; yet, the reader glimpses truth in Anna’s actions, in a diary entry:
The utter sameness just drags on….I am beholden to my own peculiar irony: to survive I self-destruct….
Anna’s insightful internal voice show her to be intelligent, discerning, never oblivious yet she finds no will to extricate herself. Then, Anna remarkably makes a genuine female friend. Mary represents for Anna an unexpected opportunity to confide in someone trustworthy, to explore possibilities, but does she avail of it?
The accurate phrasing of painful emotions will have many readers relating easily to Anna’s psyche despite the fact that they’ll wish to shake Anna into shaping up and reviving herself from the mess she’s made. I absolutely loved its style of presentation, and its use of Swiss words intrigued me and enhanced the setting. Once you read the end, you realize how exquisitely tuned the poet author has made it and immediately return to the first page and begin it again, with Anna. I look forward to more good things to come from Jill Alexander Essbaum.
Check the WRL catalog for Hausfrau

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skylightJessica wrote about Jose Saramago‘s works some time ago, citing his dark social satire and language as reasons for his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. I didn’t read the two she wrote about, but did read The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, The Stone Raft, and All the Names. Now, his final work, which is also his first, has been published.

Skylight is the story of six apartments in a single building, each housing people who couldn’t be more different from each other, and nearly all with families divided by their own differences. While disputes among neighbors are a staple of news, drama, and comedy, in the real world, clashes within families are truly more fraught, and so it is with this novel. Skylight is an appropriate name for the way he structured the book, which could be read as a collection of short stories, but which also has a novel’s unity. Like a skylight, it illuminates various parts of the building in turn, revealing the weaknesses and strengths of each resident.

This is not to say that Skylight is perfect, but it is far more mature than a reader can expect a first novel to be. Perhaps that’s because Saramago wrote it in 1953 at the age of 32 after varied experiences as a laborer, office worker, and opponent of the repressive government in a politically-charged Portugal. Perhaps it’s because we have the luxury of knowing where his future writing would go. Saramago’s next novel wouldn’t be published until 1971, and in that time he sharpened both the language and keen eye that won him honors around the world. And those who admire his work should try the writings of JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Raymond Carver or, more recently, Damon Galgut.

Check the WRL catalogue for Skylight

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strange libraryA young boy finds himself trapped in a bizarre library with a sheep man and a mysterious girl in Haruki Murakami’s illustrated short novel, The Strange Library.

His journey begins with a trip to his local library to return two books: How to Build a Submarine and Memoirs of a Shepherd. He tells the librarian that he’s also looking for some books, and she directs him to Room 107, located in the library’s basement. When he reaches Room 107, he encounters a cantankerous old man sitting behind a desk. He impulsively tells the older man that he’s looking for books on tax collection in the Ottoman Empire, and he’s presented with three books: The Ottoman Tax System, The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector, and Tax Revolts and their Suppression in the Ottoman-Turkish Empire.

The boy plans to check out the books and leave the library as quickly as possible; however, he’s told that the books can only be read in the library.  He’s travels down another corridor, where he meets a man wearing what appears to be sheepskin. The sheep man takes the boy to the Reading Room and the boy gets another surprise: the Reading Room is a jail cell. The old man locks him in the cell and tells him that he must spend the next month memorizing the content of the books. At the end of the month, the man will question him about the books. If the man decides that the boy has mastered the content, he will set him free.

Later that evening, the boy receives another mysterious visitor: a mute girl who brings him a gourmet dinner. Communicating through hand gestures, the girl tells him that her vocal chords were destroyed. After she leaves, he finishes the dinner and starts reading The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector.

The Strange Library has many elements familiar to readers of Murakami’s work: quirky characters, surreal settings, and sense of melancholy or impending loss. Murakami’s characters in this novel are nameless except for the ones mentioned in The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector. This approach is very effective; the boy is an ordinary boy whose seemingly routine trip to the local city library takes an unusual and ominous turn.

The lavish color illustrations highlight the surreal nature of the narrative, and the repetitive images, including birds, eyes, and insects, reinforce the unusual nature of the boy’s journey and the people he encounters along the way.

Haunting and poignant, The Strange Library is a quick read compared to many of Murakami’s works, but the engaging prose and fantastic illustrations may inspire readers to make return trips to Room 107.

Check the WRL catalog for The Strange Library

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JacketIn this corner, weighing in at three pounds, with a chemical punch that rules the body is The Brain! And in this corner, managed by clueless trainers and sycophantic followers, is Everything Else! It’s the eternal match-up of Nature vs. Nurture! Tonight’s referee is Herman Koch, but there are no rules about punching below the belt, no timekeepers, and judges who can’t score the bout until it’s way too late. Ding!

OK, that’s a poor imitation of the ongoing boxing match between those who say criminals are born and those who say they are made. As a story, The Dinner is more like a tag-team wrestling event with a fundamental questions at its heart: Does a parent’s love encompass protecting their children from the consequences of their deeds?

Herman Koch has structured his approach to the question as the progressive courses of a dinner (hence the title) between two brothers and their wives. Paul, the narrator, is a teacher; his brother Serge a politician cruising to the top of Dutch political life. We see everything through Paul’s eyes, beginning with the bitter aperitif of Paul’s loathing for his pretentious brother and ending with a horrific after-dinner drink at a nearby pub. This single viewpoint frequently breaks the action up as individuals and pairs leave the table for private conversations we aren’t privy to, or we follow along as Paul does things the others don’t know about.

Over the course of the evening we learn that Paul’s son Michel and Serge’s son Rick were involved in a terrible crime. Paul recognized the boys from security footage, but the police and public haven’t, and every day brings new and more strident calls that the criminals be brought to justice. Does Paul have the courage to confront his son, to tell his wife, brother, and sister-in-law, to expose the boys and ruin both families? And does Paul’s bitterness have roots in a deeper conflict?

Koch has successfully incorporated the technology that has rendered so much other fiction out-of-date. Swapped cell phones, stolen emails, YouTube videos, and deleted voice mails all play a significant role in bringing the conflict into the open, and in offering a solution to the dilemma. But at its core, this is a story about people, ethics, and that old battle of Nature vs. Nurture. That one’s not going away any time soon.

Check the WRL catalog for The Dinner

(Coming in Summer 2015 as a Gab Bag – I’ll post that as soon as it’s up)

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doigChristmastime is always a good opportunity for some re-reading, and this past holiday season I went back to one of my favorite contemporary writers, Ivan Doig. Doig is a masterful chronicler of the lives of those people who settled and built their lives in the Montana territory (and later the state).

English Creek tells the story of one 1930s summer in the life of fourteen-year-old Jick McCaskill, son of strong parents with deep Montana roots. Much of the action in this coming of age novel is driven by the split between Jick’s parents and his older brother, Alec, over Alec’s desire to forgo college to be a cowboy. Stubbornness on both sides catches Jick in the middle, and he finds himself unable to reconcile his parents and brother, despite his best efforts.

Doig has a deep affection for both his characters and for the Montana landscape. He makes both come alive for the reader. Doig also clearly understands how the past affects the present, and English Creek is filled with storytellers who remember the history of the families of Montana’s Two Medicine country and how that history has shaped current events.

There is humor here, and sorrow, and as Jick learns more about his parents’ early lives and about his brother’s longing to live his own life he begins to chart his own path to adulthood. Doig takes a look at the earlier history of the Two Medicine country in the second novel in the series, Dancing at the Rascal Fair, and brings the story up to date in Ride with Me, Mariah Montana.

Check the WRL catalog for English Creek

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remarqueIt’s Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day, the day the guns finally went silent in a Europe shattered by World War I. The Armistice was scheduled to begin at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. One bitter joke that made the rounds in the trenches – “Why didn’t they wait ’til the eleventh year?”

Of all the novels which emerged from the War to End All Wars, All Quiet on the Western Front is surely the greatest. While its imagery and the episodes it recounts did not exactly break new ground, Remarque captures both the external devastation of the war and the internal havoc it wreaked on a generation of soldiers. The fact that this story is about Paul Baumer, a German, matters little – it could be about Paul Bois or Paul Wood, or any young man from any country affected by the War. They saw the same horrors, suffered the same degradation, endured the same unendurable lives. But there was a difference even within the armies, and All Quiet on the Western Front unflinchingly told readers how an entire generation was lost.

Paul and his classmates join the Army en masse under the exhortation of their schoolmaster. Filled with patriotism and the orderly knowledge only young men fresh from the classroom could retain, they enter their training regime and begin to learn the ways of a random world. When they arrive at the front, they learn entirely new lessons about a chaotic world striving to kill them. They serve with men of all classes and from all regions of Germany, all of whom are gradually descending to the most basic levels of humanity. Paul and his friends have the farthest to fall, but the trenches eventually make all men equal.

When I was very young, All Quiet on the Western Front gave me a graphic illustration of war stripped of its illusions of honor.  Only as an older reader did I become aware of Paul’s complete loss of self. Having gone straight from childhood to a debased manhood, Paul realizes that he has nothing to return to – unlike the older men, he cannot take up a pre-war life. Unlike the younger, he cannot return to a meaningful school life. That changed my understanding of the ending, which I had remembered along the lines of Richard Thomas’s portrayal of Paul in the 1979 movie. Remarque’s original is far more tragic.

The original title, Im Westen nichts Neues, translated literally from German means “In the West, Nothing New.”  Whether Remarque meant it as literally as the translation suggests, or as a warning in light of the increasing aggression and xenophobia characterized by the rise of the Nazis is hard to say. Unfortunately, it seems that Ecclesiastes was and continues to be right.

Find All Quiet on the Western Front in the WRL catalog.

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