Wednesday 29 April 2015

The Twin

Finished April 28
The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer

This novel is narrated by Helmer, the surviving brother of twins. His (slightly) younger brother Henk died thirty years ago in a car accident. The car was driven by Henk's fiance, Riet. A few days after the funeral, Henk and Helmer's father told Riet to go away, that he didn't ever want to see her again.
A few years ago, Helmer's mother died, and his father is deteriorating, unable to walk. Helmer has suddenly decided to change things at the house, moving his father up to his old room, and moving himself into the bedroom on the main floor that was his parents. He cleans and paints as well, throwing out some furniture and storing other pieces in the room that was his brother's.
His neighbour Ada and her sons Teun and Ronald often stop by, although Win, Ada's husband does not. Teun and Ronald love Helmer's donkeys, crawling into their stalls, feeding them carrots. Helmer was the one who had to give up his university, stay home and become a farmer after Henk died. Henk was supposed to be the one to take over the farm, to deal with the sheep and the dairy cows. But it was expected that Helmer would take over and so he did.
Helmer's relationship with his father is a difficult one, based on a harsh upbringing and years of resentment. Helmer looks after his father's needs, but he doesn't really care for him it seems. Has he moved him upstairs as a step towards his father's eventual death?
Riet has suddenly contacted Helmer, asking him to take her son on as a farmhand. But it is uncertain whether that is all she really wants. The son, also named Henk, is still finding himself and the two men, Henk and Helmer form a relationship that is more than farmer and farmhand.
I found the ending both surprising and not. In many ways you could see it coming. This is a book of regret, of hopes, of waiting. Helmer is waiting, his father is waiting, Riet is waiting, the hooded crow that sits on the tree outside the farmhouse is waiting.

Monday 27 April 2015

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Finished April 27
Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian, read by Grace Blewer

This novel is told by a young woman looking back at her recent past, Emily Shepard is a homeless teenager struggling to survive after her life has fallen apart. A nuclear powerplant in Vermont had a reactor go into meltdown and a large area of the state had to be evacuated, with many people losing their homes, their jobs, and many plant workers dying. Emily tells her story in fits and starts, jumping from the June that the meltdown occurred to the next spring when things completely fall apart for her. Part of Emily's situation is that her father was the chief engineer at the plant, and her mother was the communications representative. She feels that she must hide her identity as people are angry with her when they find out who her parents were.
Long before the meltdown, Emily was fascinated with her poet namesake Emily Dickinson, knowing many of her poems by heart, and writing her own poetry. Emily was a bit of a rebellious teenager, not doing as well in school as she could have, engaging in some risky behaviour and criticizing her parents for their own weaknesses. But she was still not fully an adult and her innocence shows even as she loses it. Among her many losses is that of her beloved dog Maggie, who was left in the house during the sudden evacuation, and whose unknown fate haunts Emily.
When she comes across Cameron, a young boy fleeing from a series of bad foster homes, she takes him under her wing, trying to convince him to get more help than she can offer, but also protecting him as much as she is able. In some ways, his presence also keeps her alive.
Emily struggles with many of the issues homeless teens struggling with self-hatred, depression, and general anxiety struggle with. She engages in far riskier behaviour than she would ever have thought herself capable of, but also finds herself reaching out to others as she tries to survive any way she can.
Emily is strong, but also overwhelmed by her circumstances. As she leads us through her story, referring back to events in her life before the meltdown, we see her loneliness, her dreams, and her regrets.
The interview with the author and narrator included here added another element to the story. Grace is Chris's daughter and the inspiration for some of the characteristics of Emily, as well as the source for some of the language particular to teens.


Finished April 26
Neverhome by Laird Hunt

This historical novel is full of surprises. The narrator is Ash Thompson. Ash's real name is Constance, and she has taken time to learn to move like a man and feel comfortable in men's clothing so that she can go and fight for the Union in the U.S. Civil War. Ash is more assertive, more robust, and more skilled at many tasks than her husband Bartholomew and she feels that one of them should go to represent their family. Her motives are more complex in reality and as the novel unfolds we begin to realize that Ash is not always telling us everything.
Ash makes a name for herself early by coming to the aid of a women in an immodest situation, earning herself the nickname of Gallant Ash. She is recognized for her shooting skills, and her strong work ethic. She recognizes others like herself along the way, and they recognize her in return, but all keep the secret. When she is placed in difficult situations, Ash is not above using her female identity to gain advantage, nor is she unwilling to switch back to male if that will further her own ends.
Besides the story itself, this book has underlying meanings, beginning with Ash's real name of Constance. Constance is the one thing she is not, but also the one thing she is.
She survives capture, accusations of treason and spying, imprisonment, being labelled a madwoman, being tortured, and being betrayed. She does not find war what she thought, but neither is home what she expects either.
The story has an element of reflection, as she looks back on her experience and tries to find meaning in it.

Red Gold

Finished April 26
Red Gold by Alan Furst

Another wonderful World War II thriller by a master. This novel takes place over just a few months, from the fall of 1941 to April 1942. The majority of the action takes place in Paris, but not all. The lead character here is Jean Casson, a film producer. In the summer of 1941, Jean had been questioned by the Gestapo and had escaped custody. He is now living under the name Jean Marin, and is running out of money. He connects with a previous colleague from the film industry and does some black market work that gives him a little to go in, but is subsequently picked up. Instead of being questioned though, he is given an opportunity. He is asked to be an intermediary between the resistance and the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP), the clandestine action group of the French Communist Party. His contact on the resistance side is a man named Degrave, someone Casson worked with years earlier on a propaganda piece. Degrave worked in government intelligence then, and still does. The first measure of cooperation is to supply the FTP with guns, something they badly need. As the plot progresses there are triumphs and setbacks. Casson is forced to approach both previous colleagues as well as old friends in order to keep himself funded, and make a dent in the German war machine.
Casson is an interesting man, one who let himself be turned by love, and yet even in the disappointment of that affair, move forward with open eyes. He cares about people, from Degrave to the woman and undocumented Jew, Helene, he meets that works in a travel agency and fears discovery and its repercussions, to his estranged wife Marie-Claire.
We see portions of the story from the view of some of the players on the communist side as well, again both triumphs and failures.
Furst is so good because he does his research and bases his plot on the reality of history.

Tuesday 21 April 2015

World War Z

Finished April 21
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks, performed by an all-star cast: F. Murray Abraham, Alan Alda, Rene Auberjonois, Becky Ann Baker, Dennis Boutsikaris, Bruce Boxleitner, Max Brooks, Nicki Clyne, Common, Denise Crosby, Frank Darabont, Dean Edwards, Mark Hamill, Nathan Fillion, Maz Jobrani, Frank Kamai, Michelle Kholos, John McElroy, Ade M'Cormack, Alfred Molina, Parminder Nagra, Ajay Naidu, Masi Oka, Steve Park, Kal Penn, Simon Pegg, Jurgen Prochnow, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Henry Rollins, Jeri Ryan, Jay O. Sanders, Martin Scorsese, Paul Sorvino, David Ogden Stiers, Brian tee, John Turturro, Eamonn Walker, Ric Young, and Waleed Zuaiter.

This was like listening to a movie. The structure takes us around the world several times, workings its way from the first outbreak, through the spread of the disease, to the first public announcements, the ways that various countries or regions dealt with the outbreaks, the refugees, the fights against the zombies in various regions, what worked and what didn't, the emotional, physical, and mental effects on people. We see the heroes, the terrible mistakes, the losses, the struggles to survive. We see big battles and one-on-one fights to survive. We gradually understand the way that people began to understand what they were up against and how they had to adapt their defences and attacks to meet an enemy that wasn't what they'd see historically.
We see how even when they'd established areas of safety, they felt they had to move into infested areas and take back those areas, fighting to the last zombie they could find. We see how different environments made fighting more difficult and how small mistakes could have large effects on the way things turned out.
The casting was well done, and the actors really brought it all to life for me.
One of our pages at work recommended this to me, and I'm glad to have taken it up and thoroughly enjoyed it.


Finished April 21
Wonder by Dominique Fortier, translated by Sheila Fischman

This gem of a novel has three sections. The main characters in the first two sections are real historical figures, but Fortier has given them different experiences beyond their real lives.
The first is set in the early twentieth century in Martinique and begins just a few days before the devastating eruption of Mount Pelée. The entire city of Saint Pierre was destroyed and only one man survived. It is this man, known here by the name of Baptiste Cyparis. Like the real man, Cyparis is approached by a representative of Barnum & Bailey's circus and tours with them as one of the sideshow attractions. Here, Cyparis is known as The Man Who Lived Through Doomsday, and he befriends a young boy looking after some of the animals, and in turn begins a relationship with the boy's mother. This section gives a feel for both the loneliness and notoriety of the circus people, and the hierarchy within their community.
The second is set in a wider section of time during the same era. In England, we see the development from childhood of the mathematician Edward Love, a man famous for using math to explain earth's inner workings. Edward falls in love with a woman who is also one fascinated by earth and it's inner workings, but for her, they translate into music. Their natural affinity leads them to explore further and bring each other epiphanies as their own insights lead to breakthroughs for the other. The travel to Italy and visit the newly excavated ruins of Pompeii, some of the happiest days of their lives. The real Edward Love discovered Love numbers which are used to measure the elastic response of the Earth to the influence of tides, and Love waves which are still used to study the Earth's crust and earthquakes.
The third section of the book is set in Montreal, mostly on Mont Royal itself. Rose is a young woman who walks dogs every day, taking them up the path to the summit, near the cemetery. Through a series of gradual events she comes to know a young man who works in the cemetery, and the two of them grow close.
This is a novel of language, of ideas, of the subtle interactions between people. The original French edition was a finalist for the Prix littéraire des collégiens.

Sunday 19 April 2015

The Afterlife of Stars

Finished April 18
The Afterlife of Stars by Joseph Kertes

This novel is told from the point of view of a young boy, aged, as he says, 9.8, Robert Beck is a Hungarian Jew, one of the many saved by Raoul Wallenberg. The year is 1956, and the Russians have moved in on Budapest. Robert's family's apartment is taken over by Russians,and his father insists that now is the time to leave. They idea is to visit Robert's grandmother's sister Hermina in Paris, and then go on to Canada, where Robert's father's cousin Peter lives. So Roberts parents, Lili and Simon, his grandmother Klari, his older brother Attila, aged 13.7, his father's cousin Andras and his wife Judit, heavily pregnant, all pack up what they can carry and take the train as far west towards Austria as they can.
Attila is a high energy boy, full of questions, insistent with them, and also easily angered. He is constantly getting ideas and dragging Robert along with him. Robert is a calm boy, observant, interested, and as his Hermina says, born wise. He thinks a lot and does worry about things, but doesn't burst out with them as Attila does.
The book takes us as far as Paris and the ship to Canada. The writing is full of imagery, with Attila's questions insistent, startling, and sometimes violent. Robert's inward thoughts are also full of imagery, but a dreamier version, thoughtful and deeper. This is a story of a hidden past, a difficult past to come to terms with, and an uncertain future. This is a story of lives in motion, of a close family in a trying situation. This is a story of children, aching for knowledge, but not always able to deal with that knowledge.

Friday 17 April 2015

A Jury of Her Peers

Finished April 13
A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx by Elaine Showalter

This overview of American women writers covers the entire history of the topic from the beginnings of the country to the end of the twentieth century. Showalter includes more than 250 women writers in her commentary from poets to dramatists to short story writers and novelists. She touches on not only the obvious issues of gender, but also race, class, and politics.
The book is arranged chronologically with authors reappearing in different chapters as their writing carries over multiple time frames. As the book gets closer to the present, the time frames shorten to decades. Showalter looks at the writing in its context, examining the personal lives of the writers, how their experiences shaped their writing and their lives, and how outside forces reacted to their writing. Some drew support from male writers of their time, while others did not. Some flourished economically but not critically. Some did well at the time of writing and grew less significant in following years, others didn't do well during their lives, but became more valued later. Some had to sacrifice their preferences in the type of writing they wanted to do due to the pressures of economics, family situations, or prejudice.
There were a lot of writers I had never heard of, but also many that I've heard of but never read (some of them I've even got the books on my shelves!) And of course ones I've read and loved, or read and not loved. This book will help to guide some of my future reading.
Showalter gives us a history but also includes some criticism here, occasionally making clear her own views on the writers' works, and the reasoning behind those views.
The title is taken from a short story that was adapted from a play. The author, Susan Glaspell was a journalist who covered a murder case where a woman was accused of murdering her husband, and then was so fascinated by the case that she developed it into both a play and a short story. When the county attorney and sheriff go to the house to gather information, their wives accompany them and looking through a woman's eyes make their own discoveries and decisions about her actions. Of course, real juries at the time of the case, 1917, didn't include women and the link is made in this book from legal juries to literary juries. Glaspell won a Pulitzer Prize in 1931 and yet didn't rate inclusion in literary overviews even at her death nearly 20 years later. Questions are raised by the question of "peer" and what that means both legally and in a literary sense.What judgments have been made about the subject matter women chose to address in their writing at various times is discussed as is the change over time to the situation today where a woman writer can, without judgment choose any subject she wishes to write about.
A work leading to reflection, more reading, and thoughtful response.

Thursday 16 April 2015

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Finished April 12
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

This novel takes place on Thanksgiving Day at Texas Stadium as the Dallas Cowboys go up against the Chicago Bears. Billy Lynn is nineteen and a member of Bravo Squad, a team of marines whose engagement in a recent action against Iraqi insurgents has made them national heroes. Footage of the action by an embedded Fox reporter has brought it more immediate recognition than most engagements that are just heard about. Billy was awarded a Silver Star for his actions. Bravo  Squad has been touring America, attending a variety of events, and this is their last one before shipping back to Iraq to complete their tour of duty. They are travelling with Albert, a Hollywood producer who wants to make a movie about their story.
There are some flashbacks here, a major one is Billy's one-day visit with his family a few days ago. Billy is in the forces because of a criminal act he committed, albeit one with strong conviction behind it. His sister Kathryn, who he is close to and who he committed the act for, is urging him to contact a group she has heard of who helps soldiers who don't want to go back to Iraq. But Billy feels pulled between his hatred of the war and his bond with his fellow Bravo members.
Billy is young in many ways, and as we see his various interactions, with his team members, with a young woman he meets at the game and becomes enamored of, with the producer, with his family, we see both his maturity from his experiences and his innocence from his lack of experiences. Billy is still affected by the loss of one of his fellow squad members, Shroom, who was a mentor to him and who died in his arms during the action.
We see the goodness in these young men and the male banter, often lewd and irreverent, that occurs among them. These young men are contained energy, trained for action, and right now caught up in media attention that they aren't entirely comfortable with.
I felt for Billy, his struggle and his innocence here. He came alive for me.

Monday 13 April 2015

A Spool of Blue Thread

Finished April 10
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, read by Kimberly Farr

This novel has four parts with the first and last set in the present.
The main part of the book reviews the lives of Abby and Red Whitshank as their children grow up and leave home. Denny is the one Abby worries about the most. He communicates the least, doesn't seem to have a plan for his life, and grows resentful when asked questions. As Abby and Red begin having some minor health issues that get the children worrying, their two boys move back home to "help out". We see the interactions between the four children, the background to their lives, and how they get along now.
The second part of the book goes back to how Red and Abby's relationship begin, a family story that Abby tells often, always starting it with the words "It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon...".
The third part of the book goes back to Red's parents, how they met, how they ended up together and what brought them to the house that Red and Abby now live in.
The last part of the book is in the present again, The decision has been made for the Whitshanks to move on, and we see the more adult interactions between the four Whitshank children, particularly Denny's maturity.
As always, Tyler's story is about people, ordinary people living their ordinary lives, and the insight she brings to this is always one that sheds light on our own lives and how we live them.
A very enjoyable read.

Thursday 2 April 2015

The Love Bunglers

Finished April 2
The Love Bunglers by Jaime Hernandez, illustrated by Jaime Hernandez

This graphic novel follows a woman from the age of about ten into her middle age. Perla, also known as Maggie, is the oldest child of four in her family and as the book begins the family is moving from the city to join her father in the town he works in. After a period living there where the older of her two brothers undergoes a difficult abusive relationship, the family is split, and Maggie, her mother. sister, and younger brother return to the city.
We see the family relationships, the long term friendships, the ongoing relationships and the character development.
We know about Maggie's brother's situation in a way she never does.
We know her struggles over the years.
I genuinely liked the characters here, felt for the pain they underwent and rooted for them to come through.
I really enjoyed this book.

Weapons of Mass Diplomacy

Finished April 1
Weapons of Mass Diplomacy written by Abel Lanzac, illustrated by Christophe Blain, translated by Edward Gauvin

This graphic novel follows a man who works for the French Foreign Ministry. as the speechwriter for the minister. The time is 2002 and Arthur Vlaminck is at first awed by the Minister, Alexandre Taillard de Vorms. Vorms quotes classical writers and poets, but Vlaminck soon discovers that Vorms is a combination of energy, ego, intuition, and rhetoric. The hours are long, the stress is high, and Vlaminck grows more and more distant from his fiance as he has less time for a personal life. The clash between the French and the Americans is a big part of this story.
This is a satire, with elements of political bluster, ancient Greek philosophy, and Middle East unrest.
As a backroom glimpse to the world of international politics, this is a well-written insightful novel. The drawing is well-done, feeding the action of the novel in the way it depicts the action and using elements of physicality to emphasize the nationality of the characters.
Enjoyable, if not my usual choice of subject matter.

Ant Colony

Finished April 1
Ant Colony by Michael DeForge. Illustrated by Michael DeForge.

This graphic novel is set in and around a colony of ants. The ants are humanized, and the book concentrates its story on a small number of the ants in a colony. As the ants forage for food, protect and pay homage to their queen, and defend themselves against a group of red ants, we see the social dynamics of the colony, the motivations for the various actions that the colony members undertake and the outcomes of this action.
This graphic novel didn't really appeal to me on a personal level, but the drawing was interesting it its interpretation of things.
The appeal of this graphic novel would lie in the drawings, and the tale as a metaphor for the human condition.

Monthly Mix Up Mania

What: To read a book for each letter in the year. That's right, a title for the J in January and the A in January, etc.... 74 books total! Hosted here.

Official Start date: April 1, 2015. 

End date: March 31, 2017, yes, two years, because well, we have other challenges to do ;)

  • only one letter per book
  • books can be moved around if it fits better somewhere else after you've read it
  • the letter doesn't have to be the first word, just the first letter of a word in the title (aan, and the do not count)
  • reviews aren't necessary but a quick "I read for letter... it was about... I did/not like it" would be nice and can be left in the comments.
  • if you decide to join in, create a post on your blog telling others then come back and link up (to the actual post, not just your blog's home page)
  • a blog is not necessary, just comment on that month's post.
  • the most important thing is to have fun!

Just a couple of suggestions. . .
read a book with the month's name in the title
Only use the first letter of the first word
I'm going to try it using the suggestion of the first letter of the first word, disregarding any "a" or "the". I'm also going to try to read the letters in order. 
I'm wavering between two books for my first read. Either  A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx by Elaine Showalter, which I am already reading for another challenge, or Joy Comes in the Morning by Jonathan Rosen which is in my TBR pile.


The Wild Things

Finished March 31
The Wild Things by Dave Eggers

This novel is a tale inspired by the Maurice Sendak picture book Where the Wild Things Are. Max is eight and lives in the suburbs with his mother and his older sister, His mother's boyfriend Gary sometimes stays over too. He visits his dad in the city on weekends sometimes.
As the book begins Max feels left out and builds a snow fort where he launches a snowball attack against his sister and her friends. When they fight back, and then leave, he feels even more left out and initiates more bad behaviour against his sister.
Max's acting out frustrates both his sister and mother and when an angry remark from his mother sends him running, his flight leads to a small sailboat, a trip across the water, and an island where Max encounters a number of strange wild things and engages in a variety of destructive and wild behaviour.
The story of a small boy and his frustrations with his life, and how he exhibits that frustration through his behaviour is one we can see as all too real. It is only on the island where Max sees the consequences of his behaviour and has to deal with them himself that he grows up enough to see how his acts in real life affect his family.
An interesting take on a classic tale.

A Bride for the Season

Finished March 30
A Bride for the Season by Jennifer Delamere

This romance novel is set in the 1850s in London. The story follows two characters. Lucinda Cardington is 25 and has given up the idea of a husband. She plans to use the inheritance she comes into the following year to set up her own home so she is freer to do what she wishes. She already spends one day a week at a shelter for women. There she helps to educate former prostitutes so they can find legitimate word and have a better life. But her parents still force her to attend social events that she has no interest in and her younger sister Emily is too much the flirt. Lucinda worries about Emily, and so one night when she sees Emily sneaking out of the house, she takes her maid and goes after her.
James Simpson has been playing the field for a few years, flirting with the young women, but never going further than that. He takes his pleasures elsewhere. However one night, after a ball, he takes himself to his usual haunts and finds himself accosted by none other than an upper class young lady. It looks like his two world have finally come together and he will be forced to marry the young lady, Emily, in order to save her reputation.
He finds that her father's terms are more complex than that though. Emily's dowry is dependent on James also finding a husband for Lucinda. As James takes the time to get to know Lucinda better, in order to find a good match for her, he finds himself more and more drawn to the elder sister, but how to manage things then is the difficult part.
An interesting romance that shows the reality of life during this period as well as giving a nice love story. Lucinda has many interests, and James is a man who actually cares about women and looks at them as having something to contribute.