Thursday, July 28, 2011

White Heat

by MJ McGrath, Viking Adult, August 2011

...The mystery part was engaging if in the end a little farfetched but the setting in the far north was very interesting.

This is a mystery set in the Arctic tundra. The protagonist is Edie Kiglatuk, a half Inuit half Caucasian guide. Because of her mixed background and because she is a woman she struggles for acceptance in her village. When she is leading a hunting trip with two tourists and one is shot dead she senses that this death was not an accident. Following this event the suicide of her stepson leads her to believe that something is rotten in the small village where she lives. Initially unable to get the interest of the police inspector Derek Palliser, she, using her hunting skills, works to solve these crimes. Edie keeps to the native Inuit beliefs that include an appreciation of nature and the surrounding environment and the place of all creatures living and dead in the circle. Not to give away too much of the plot let me just say we are treated to a tour of the far north, from Arctic Canada to Greenland.

This story has an authentic feel to it. The author has included many words from the Inuit language and while they seem almost unpronounceable they do add to the uniqueness of this story. All of the Inuit lifestyle is embedded in the novel. Sustenance living, dependent in the north on hunting, fishing and trapping skills is shown in an interesting way. The absolute place of weather and seasonal changes on the lives of the Inuit’s is integral to this story. Also the descriptions of how the Intuits relate and interact with the white political establishment had a real ring of truth to it. In a place so far from the centers of power the law has only a limited ability to touch people. Inuit culture has a more stabilizing value to the villagers than anything the white man has to offer.

I enjoyed this mystery. The mystery part was engaging if in the end a little farfetched but the setting in the far north was very interesting. The characters including Edie and Inspector Palliser were well drawn and very likeable. I’ll look forward to the next entry in this new series
I read a copy of this book provided by the publisher.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Watery Part of the World

The Watery Part of the World
The Watery Part of the World by Michael Parker, Algonquin Books, April 26, 2011

...this relatively short novel really did not move me
To my mind, this story brimmed with possibility. It promised a story spanning the time period of 1800 to present day on an Outer Bank Island. Taking the life of Theodosia Burr, daughter of Aaron Burr who was lost off the Outer Banks and never again heard from, the author postulates that she survived tragedy at sea and built a life and had a family on the fictional island of Yaupon. In a parallel story 150 years later, two white women descendents of Burr live out the last days on the island with a black man, also a long time island resident. They are the only inhabitants of the island.

The story in the 1800s has lots of color. In the fictional account Burr is saved from a pirate attack because the pirate captain is convinced she is mad “touched by God”. Burr had been extremely well educated by her father and was thought to be the most well educated woman in the US at that time. Then she falls into a world where foraging for shipwrecked cargo is a more valued skill that reciting Shakespeare. Despite this she adapts and thrives on this island. She meets a former pirate and falls in love with him. Her strong will to live allows her to make a life for herself and her offspring on this island. She is a memorable character.

The 1950s story of the island residents, the two white sisters Whaley and Maggie, and Woodrow a black man descendent from a free African is really quite strange and hard to relate to. Talk about lives of quiet desperation, Thoreau must have had this crew in mind with that phrase. The elder sister Whaley, the more eccentric of the two is devoted to preserving her interpretation of the island’s history. Each year they are visited by anthropologists (called the Taperecorders). Whaley assumes an old island brogue and relates the history back to Theodosia leaving out any issues that would reflect poorly on the family. The younger sister unable to escape the island’s hold on her life mourns the loss of a love affair with a man who left the island. Woodrow also heavily drawn to life on this island is a remote character who in very understated ways expresses the frustration of the subservient black man in his relationship with these women. The relationships between and among these three characters is the central theme of this story; they have a strange, odd dependency among them. I found this second story somewhat dissatisfying in dealing with the race issue, while it is of great importance in their relationships it is never really tackled head on. I guess the other criticism I had of this second story was that the characters were all so passive and the island hold on them was so strong. While that is surely possible it is overwhelmingly sad to have lives wasted in this way.

So this relatively short (272 pages) novel really did not move me. I liked the section dealing with Theodosia and her adaption to life on the island. All of the prose relating to the island was good and gave a dreamy (perhaps watery?) feel to the story. Lastly I was left cold with the 1950s section.

I read a copy of this novel borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia

Monday, July 18, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's BerlinIn the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson, Crown Publishing, May 2011

...a totally different view of the time period

Having read many books about WWII and the run up to it I was pleasantly surprised at Erik Larson's contribution to this body of work.  He tells the story of William Dodd, an unlikely choice to be America's ambassador to the new German government formed by Adolf Hitler in 1933.  Dodd, on paper unqualified for the job, comes from an academic background teaching in Chicago.  A self described "Jeffersonian democrat" he responds to Roosevelt's request to fill this position.  He moves his wife and two adult children, Martha and Bill to Berlin.  Martha is recently separated from an older husband and open for adventures of all kinds in Europe.

In retrospect it is easy to see the evil that was Hitler's Reich.  In 1933 as he was coming to power in Germany things were much less clear.  The primary concern of the US government appears to have been getting Germany to repay US loans (the large financial institutions making self serving decisions as usual).  To his credit William Dodd early on recognized the evil aspects of Hitler's regime.  When the career US diplomats were cautioning against any opposition to Hitler, Dodd was making speeches that warned of the lawlessness and arms building occurring in Germany.  In 1933/34 Hitler's power was far from absolute and you can only speculate what might have happened if some governments - US and European - had spoken out as Dodd wanted.

Dodd's daughter Martha had a different take on the new regime.  She had a romantic relationship with at least one military officer in the SS.  While initially enamoured of the energy and charisma of Hitler, she witnesses at least one attack by "brown shirts" and recognized the developing hatred of the regime for the Jews.  She has several affairs while in Germany and develops a lasting relationship with a Russian embassy officer, at least until he is terminated by Stalin.  Her story captures the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Berlin in the 1930s.  She too in the end recognizes the evil in the Nazi government.

Both Dodd and his daughter were faithful diarists enabling the author using the diaries and other sources to reconstruct an almost day by day account of those times.  It is a totally different view of the time period from what you would read in most histories.  It reads almost like gossipy fiction.

My one criticism of the book is that it was remarkably devoid of photos.  I've come to expect them in non fiction stories like this and there were very few throughout the text.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Before I Go To Sleep

Before I Go to Sleep: A NovelBefore I Go to Sleep: A Novel
by S.J. Watson, read by Orlagh Cassidy, Harper Audio, 11 hrs, 35 minutes, June, 2014

...until the very last pages of the book I couldn’t figure this one out

This is a debut novel for S.J. Watson and it is a good one. The plot involves Christine, a 47 year old amnesiac who wakes up each day with no memory of her life. Her husband Ben is a stranger to her. Each day he explains to her that she had a terrible accident that robbed her of the ability to retain memories after she falls asleep each night. Christine works with a new doctor who encourages her to write a journal each day so she can revisit the memories she has developed. Inconsistencies in her story between what her doctor tells her and what her husband tells her cause her to question what is true and what might be false memories. She reads in the front of her diary in her own hand the words “Don’t trust Ben”. And that is all of the plot you need to know!
This story is really well done. It plays with your understanding of memory and subconscious thoughts much as Christopher Nolan’s films Memento and Inception do. The narrator is possibly unreliable and that adds to the mystery in this tale. You are never sure what is a real memory and what might be a fabricated one and neither is the narrator. There is a real writing skill needed when Christine must retell her story each day and not leave the reader bored to tears in the telling. The author accomplishes this brilliantly with exceptionally good pacing and prose. As Christine’s knowledge widens she is left unsure who she might trust, her doctor, her husband, her old friend. The story progresses from a psychological drama of an amnesiac to a full fledged suspense thriller. Up until the very last pages of the book I couldn’t figure this one out. Surely will be a major motion picture made from this one! Can’t wait to see what S.J.Watson writes next.

I listened to the audio version of this story real by Orlagh Cassidy. She was a perfect voice for this novel, conveying a range of emotions from puzzlement to panic with great skill.

I listened to an audio copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Coffins of Little Hope

by Timothy Schaffert, Unbridled Books, April 2011

...for a summer read it is quirky, charming and memorable.

This story is narrated by 83 year old Essie Myles, obituary writer for a small town newspaper in a mid west small town. There are three plot lines going – Essie’s relationship with her family, her grandson Doc and great granddaughter Tiff; the local publication of the last in a series of gothic children’s books (read H. Potter) and the disappearance of a local girl who may in fact have never existed.

The plot meanders along as all of the characters are introduced. I absolutely loved the voice of Essie. I can’t remember when I last read a book that had an 83 year old narrator. She is a great character very much alive with a wisdom developed over a lifetime – I really cared for her.

The author gently satirizes the culture we live in where the news media relentlessly covers scandals and feeds the public obsession with these cases. When news of the missing girl Lenore isn’t available, news is manufactured to continue the story. There is real doubt as to whether Lenore ever existed, but in the end it doesn’t matter because the story has a life of its own.

The printing of the children’s books (last in the series is Coffins of Little Hope) is done by the presses at the local paper. The author of these books, a character in how own right, also becomes fascinated with Lenore’s disappearance and arrives on the scene to add to the hilarity of the story.

Essie’s relationship with the two people she cares for the most Doc and Tiff is nicely told. The friendship between Tiff and her great grandmother is believable and filled with the everyday moments that make up a life. Tiff is a child who has been abandoned by her mother, raised by her uncle Doc and now trying to reestablish a relationship with her mother. Essie stands with her as a support but encourages her to make her own choices in facing life.

The plot is almost incidental and really just lazes along. This definitely is not an action story. It is a story of delightful characters. In the end I felt like I really knew and liked these people. At less than 300 pages it isn’t a major time investment but for a summer read it is quirky, charming and memorable.

I read a copy of this book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Tigers Wife

The Tiger's Wife: A Novel
The Tiger's Wife: A Novel
by Tea Obreht, narrated by Susan Duerdin and Robin Sachs, Random House Audio, March 2011, 11 hours, 26 minutes.

...the stories are folkloric and individually are very good, great prose and really very lyrical in the telling, but I can’t get on the bandwagon for this one

This story is set in the Balkans, most probably modern day Croatia where the author is from. The centuries old ethnic fighting gives background to this unusual story. Natalie Stefanovi, a physician on a “cross border” mission to inoculate children is the main character and narrator. Natalie has just learned that her beloved grandfather has died far from home. Her grandfather, a well known physician has been forced from his medical practice because he is suspected of disloyalty to the new state. Natalie interrupts her volunteer medical mission and seeks answers to his death. The story then separates into a number of different threads - some occurring in the present and some from her grandfathers youth when the Nazi’s invaded Yugoslavia. All of the stories are folkloric and individually are very good, great prose and really very lyrical in the telling.

The Tiger’s Wife sub story tells of an escaped tiger from the Belgrade Zoo and a deaf mute who befriends him. The presence of the tiger terrorizes the village and its inhabitants but not the deaf mute who in the face of death remains unafraid. The story of the Butcher, the Pharmacist and the Bear Trainer provide vehicles for the author to describe not only the rich ethnic background of the area but also differing views on life and death. The Deathless Man is a story of a character who cannot die but appears at the scenes of catastrophe (no shortage of these in the Balkans, always man made). Another story set in the present tells of a large family digging to recover the bones of a close relative so he may be properly buried and centuries old traditions honored. Superstition and fear have prominent roles in most of the stories.

As maybe you can tell from my review so far, I was not wild about this novel. Individual stories were very good but overall I did not think they tied together well. For a novel that deals with some very basic human emotions, the main character Natalie was strangely unemotional. The allegorical nature of the novel was as usual wasted on me. I am not a fan of puzzling out what the author is trying to say (I know, I know that is a key element of great literature but it started early for me – reading Coleridge in high school I could never get the fuss over the albatross in Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner).

So while the author has been selected by The New Yorker as one of the best writers under 40 with this her debut novel, I can’t get on the bandwagon for this one. I also listened to an audio copy read primarily by Susan Duerdin. I wasn’t a fan of her reading style, a little too breathless and in the moment for this sadly recurring Balkan tragedy.
I listened to an audio copy borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia.