Serena Serena

Serena is one scary, scary woman. serena

I loved Serena by Ron Rash except on the nights after binge reading when I woke up from nightmares about jaguars and eagles and death. Yeah, not so much fun that. This book is not for the faint of heart. It is a brutal story, but not one that feels gratuitous like Game of Thrones can at times (After watching the Red Wedding I felt completely punk’d, but that’s a story for another day). It is a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense and, beyond its literary allusions, it is a gripping story.

Set in the Depression era North Carolina mountains, it is the story of a timber empire led by Serena and her new husband, Pemberton, and their machinations to become the most powerful (and frightening) couple in the forest. In so doing they compete with interests that would like to preserve the forests, as well as the surrounding impoverished community that is simultaneously beholden to the Pembertons for income and repulsed by their brutality. From the literary angle, there is a Greek chorus timber crew that comments on the action throughout while simultaneously trying to survive under horrific conditions (cold, falling limbs, death) where nature is an adversary and rarely a friend.

While it is almost impossible (for me at least) to relate to Serena, her husband is a much more sympathetic character. When he attempts to help his illegitimate child, he unfortunately stirs the ire of Serena, which leads the plot to its closing. At the same time that I can’t relate to her as a character, I absolutely loved reading this book and count it as one of my recent favorites. I can’t image Jennifer Lawrence as Serena in the upcoming film, but I will definitely be one of the first to see it. Here’s hoping it’s as good as the book.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton #cbr6

Oh my word. I have no idea where to begin with The Luminaries. It is amazingly complex, overwhelming, and a readable mystery all at the same time. I finished this 800 page tome and wondered what the heck I had just experienced. I’m not sure if that is a criticism or a compliment.

Set in Gold Rush era New Zealand of the 1860s, it begins with a young man’s arrival to a small back water town on the south island. Relaxing in a hotel lounge, he happens across a furtive gathering of 12 men from a mix of backgrounds, classes, and races, all reflecting the typical characters drawn by the lure of gold. They proceed to tell him a perplexing and entangled mystery about love, betrayal, lost gold, vengeance, and death.

The difficulty of the story is that they are each telling their version (or piece) of the tale. No one in this novel can tell you exactly what happened; they can only give their snapshots. So the text can move slowly at times. You read a couple hundred pages and realize you haven’t gotten far in comprehending the story. By the time I reached the end I had almost stopped caring … almost.

Another issue I had is that there are many characters and several of the voices get lost (or I just mixed them up). There is the young man (Moody), the 12 men in the lounge all who play a side part, and then the 7 primary characters around whom the story mainly revolves. Some of the 12 are really well defined characters with interesting perspectives, especially Tom Balfour, Moody, and Aubert Gascoigne, but the rest blend together in Victorian man character-ness. The two women, Lydia and Anna, stand out much more, however, which is good because they are strong and interesting characters. Overall, though, it seems like the number of characters is more a technique than a necessity.

And speaking of technique, a review must mention the structure of the book, which Catton bases on astrology. There I mentioned it … because lord knows I didn’t get it. For a concise explanation see Elizabeth Knox’s launch speech. The part that makes sense is that each chapter is half the size of the previous. According to Knox, this leads to momentum in the story. Yeah. Well. So does reading a griping story.

Anyway, fabulous historical and literary fiction and certainly worth the time needed to finish it. The story and characters are engaging even if you don’t know a thing about astrology. I may still think TransAtlantic should have won the Man Booker Prize, but I concede this was a special book of 2013.

Books! TransAtlantic #cbr5

Writing about the books I love the most is difficult. I feel like I can’t convey the way it made 16085517me feel to read such an amazing book. TransAtlantic by Colum McCann is definitely one of those. Although I loved Bring up the Bodies I think this is by far my favorite novel of 2013.

To be honest I am not one of those readers who can sit and read a book all day, who stays up all night trying to get through one more chapter, and one more. I read in short spurts because my mind wanders and my body gets restless. But McCann’s novel grabbed onto my pathetic attention span and wouldn’t let go. I stayed up late reading from sheer enjoyment for the first time in ages.

The beauty and economy of his language grab you first. He can say in 10 words what I would say in 60. Plus his language is gorgeous and I couldn’t stop reading it. It flows like a poem with every word chosen for its perfection.

The characters are the second highlight. In a sense this is historical fiction because his four main characters in the first half of the book are prominent figures–George Mitchell (diplomat of the Good Friday Accords), Frederick Douglass, Alcock and Brown (pilots of the first non-stop Transatlantic flight)–but it is amazing how human he makes them. George Mitchell was especially an accomplishment considering he is still alive and able to tell his own stories. The second half of the book focuses on a fabulous family of women whose lives touched and intersected with these famous men.

Finally there is the story. He is describing the crossings and connections in our lives, in terms of our transatlantic heritage (huge academic buzz word nowadays), but also how individuals influence and impact each other. While at times it seems he stretching a bit to make these lives intertwine, I liked the people and wanted to know what would happen so much that I was willing to go along. The last chapter in particular felt a bit slow because he is trying to set up a new crossing, but by then I was willing to let him take me wherever.

This is my favorite book of 2013 so far. I’ve been recommending it to everyone. Worth the read and it is not a trilogy.

Books! Wanted a duck and got a swan #cbr4

The first Peter Carey novel I ever read ended up thrown against the wall in anger. That was Oscar and Lucinda. Actually it is the only book I’ve ever thrown against the wall. Not because it was bad, but because I cared so much for the characters. Funny then that the main character of his new novel, a woman name Catherine Gehrig, does the same with a nineteenth century manuscript. Unfortunately Catherine is not nearly as endearing as Oscar or Lucinda, but I was willing to overlook her faults considering the circumstances.

The Chemistry of Tears opens with the death of Catherine’s married lover, Matthew, and we watch as she mourns, cries, and generally self-destructs, which leads to the incident with the manuscript. She works as a conservator at the Swinburne museum and to assist with her healing, her boss gives her a new project, the re-creation of an automaton (we later find out a swan). Starting the project she unpacks the notebooks of Henry Brandling, the patron who commissioned a robot duck from some shady characters in the German Black Forest. In reading these notebooks, even after stealing them from the museum, Catherine begins the process of healing and recovery … for the most part.

I’ve read several of Carey’s books and this was definitely the most difficult to finish. Catherine’s actions in her grief and self-pity are sometimes distasteful. In addition Henry’s story is a bit convoluted and confusing. I had to re-read several passages to make sure I understood the plot. Overall Carey’s themes of the constitutive elements of life and death and the lingering impact of the Industrial Revolution give the novel its heart. The quote below is one of the most beautiful paragraphs in the book as it describes this imitation of life:

“Every eerie moment was smooth as a living thing, a snake, an eel, a swan of course. We stood in awe and, no matter how many hundred hours we had worked on it, this swan was never, not for a moment, familiar, but uncanny, sinuous, lithe, supple, winding, graceful. As it twisted to look into one’s eyes, its own stayed darkest ebony until, at that point when the sun caught the black wood, they blazed. It had no sense of touch. It had no brain. It was as glorious as God.”

We imagine this imitation of life while in the background is the indescribable horror of the Gulf oil spill that Catherine’s assistant watches unceasingly on a webcam. If the book has a failing it is that Carey is trying to do too much, prove too much, so that some of the story becomes muddled and confused. But then again, is that an imitation of life?

If you are using Nancy Pearl’s Rule of Four to find a new book (which I just read today), Carey’s doorway is most certainly language with plot, characters, and setting mixed somewhere in there.  It is a beautiful book, but it may take some dedication and perseverance. Good qualities in a conservator.

Books! The Lower River

Paul Theroux’s new novel, The Lower River, explores the difficult relationship between international aid, altruism, and the developing world. The main character, Ellis Hock, had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in his younger years. After his marriage falls apart, he decides to return to the small Malawian village that made him so happy. Nothing could have possibly changed there since the 1960s, right? The Malawians will be thrilled to see him and he can restart the small school he had created in his youth. Of course, as you can imagine, the village has changed drastically. Most of the novel chronicles his journey to the village and his desperate attempt to leave after he has been drained of money, resources, spirit, and, oh yeah, potentially sold into slavery.

I was very excited about this novel when I read a review and I love Theroux’s understanding of the challenges of international aid and altruism, which are embodied in these sentences:

“That seemed to be a feature of life in the country: to welcome strangers, let them live out their fantasy of philanthropy — a school, an orphanage, a clinic, a welfare center, a malaria eradication program, or a church; and then determine if in any of this effort and expense there was a side benefit — a kickback, a bribe, an easy job, a free vehicle. If the scheme didn’t work — and few of them did work — whose fault was that? Whose idea was it in the first place?”

It isn’t the easiest book to like though. Hock is a difficult character. He is emotionally distant in his relationships, obsessed with an idyllic Africa that never really existed, and unable to comprehend why the villagers might treat him with disrespect. The other characters aren’t well-fleshed out (it is Hock’s story). Zizi is most developed, but she serves mostly as an object to aid Hock’s return to civilization. I believe Theroux was intentional in creating these characters (i.e., we aren’t supposed to like Hock), but as a reader it can be at best daunting to stick with a character you don’t  like, or even abhor. At worst Hock becomes a stand-in for a sermon on the ills of international altruism. Another issue is the repetitiveness of the story, especially near the end. I feel like it would have been a great novella, but is too long as a novel. A few times I was rooting for Hock to die already.

Overall The Lower River is a good book, but it requires a committed reader. It is well-written and has thoughtful observations on the meaning of altruism in the developing world.

In the Shadows of the Greats II #cbr4

“Codes and symmetries are for those who think too much of thinking.”

In college I had to take one literature course to fulfill a pesky general education requirement and I meandered through a bunch before I finally landed in a Tolstoy class where we had to read War and Peace and Anna Karenina in one semester. Yeah, I keep it real. One of the classes I dropped was Introduction to Narrative course that I hated from day one because I had already read most of the works in high school. I wanted a class in which I would be exposed to new works! Yeah, I keep it real. The only thing I remember about the class was a small group discussion of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. I remember saying to the teacher that the whole story was a drug-induced metaphor and exclaiming “Why does this need to be discussed?!” Yeah, I was a bit of a brat.

So, I approached The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl’s second book with about that much knowledge (and concern) for Poe. I read his works in school, but never felt the need to care much. After reading this book, I would like to return to Poe’s Dupin stories. I almost wish I had just read the Dupin stories instead.

Our protagonist Quentin Clark comes from a respectable Baltimore family. After seeing Poe’s sparsely attended funeral, he throws away his legal practice and his fiancee to search for answers as to what killed Edgar Allen Poe. For some inexplicable reason he believes that he needs to find the inspiration for the character Dupin, a detective in Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. He goes to Paris and brings back to Charm City a couple of Dupin-abees and a few random baddies. He then runs amok through Baltimore, freeing slaves, shocking polite society, and vacillating from one hero to the next.

I’m sorry if the above description doesn’t give you much clue to its contents. To be honest I finished this book wondering what the heck I had just read. My 18-year old self would have probably exclaimed “It’s about opium addition!” but the hubris of youth has left me. And maybe that is the point. The above quote is from a character who shares some likeness with the real Dupin (although he is most definitely not the real Dupin…maybe). His point is that we tend to look for the most fabulous explanations when the evidence is right in front of us (consider the orangutang in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”). Throughout the book Clark is obsessed with solving the mystery of Poe’s death and in the process becomes fixated upon two potential hero figures who can, he thinks, make all clear. In the end the explanation is given and it is a simple and obvious explanation, but the whole escapade surrounding it is unbelievable.

And that for me is the fault of the book. The history is clear, the research is evident, but I can’t say that the story seems believable. Clark never resonates as a real person (although I have met people this indecisive before) and the back story seems implausible. I tried hard to like this, but I just couldn’t.

In the Shadows of the Greats #cbr4

Oh Cannonball Read I haven’t been keeping up with you. I’ve barely been able to read these two months. I finished The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl a while back and just finished The Poe Shadow today. Pearl’s The Last Dickens was one of my favorites of 2011, and I was able to hear him speak on our campus in March, so I decided to give these two a go. I loved The Dante Club. The Poe Shadow, discussed in the next post, was not a fave

Both are mystery novels at their hearts dressed up in Literature. The Dante Club follows four literary friends, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and J.T. Fields, who with the assistance of a detective named Nicholas Rey try to solve murders that echo the descriptions in Dante’s Inferno. Because they are assisting Longfellow with his translation of the Inferno, they are very aware of how the murders match up to Dante’s depictions of hell.

On the Goodreads page I found it humorous how many people complained about the grisliness of the murders when 1) It is a murder mystery. Patricia Cornwell and her ilk get much worse, and 2) It is hell that is being depicted.

If you get squeamish over a few maggots in your mystery, this book is not for you. Overall the murders themselves were depicted well especially considering Pearl was trying to make imitations of Dante’s hell into believable murders.

The characters are the strongest part of the book. The story can be slow at time, but I was drawn in by the individual stories of the four men, particularly Oliver Wendell Holmes. His character has a vulnerability that is endearing. By the end I found myself caring if he died or not. It was also fun to see more of J. T. Fields (who makes an appearance in The Last Dickens). Longfellow is the only character who remains a bit aloof, but this may have been Pearl’s intention. I can only imagine that the one ultra famous character would be difficult to make flesh and blood.

This was definitely one of my favorite books so far in 2012. If you like mysteries with a twist of history, this is a great one to pick up.