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“The Snow Child” by Eowyn Ivey

I’m happily in the midst of my “open season” for reading, now that I’ve finished up with the 2013 American Library Association Notable Books List.

 I’ve been using Pulitzer Prize lists, both winners and nominees, for my recent reading choices. This is how I happened upon “The Snow Child” by first-time novelist Eowyn Ivey.

 Set in Alaska in the 1920’s, it’s the story of a married couple trying their hand at clearing land and farming. In their 50’s, they’re hoping for a new start, away from their New England families, and away from whispers and pity about their childlessness.

 For the most part, the book is about Mabel, who fears that the move to Alaska has been a big mistake, that it simply reinforces the chill in the distance that has developed between her and her husband, Jack. Then a remarkable thing happens–a girl appears at their home. Mystery surrounds her. To whom does she belong? How does she survive in the brutal Alaskan landscape? Is she real?

 The novel parallels the folk tale of the snow child, in ways that on the one hand seem exciting and hopeful, and on the other, strange and heartbreaking. The symbolism of the girl, and ice, and animals, creates a strong psychological undercurrent. Yet, Ivey crafts this story in ways that become compelling.

 This is a great choice for book groups–I was dying to discuss it with someone–and thank my friend Shari for meeting me for coffee to talk it over, and for pointing out some aspects of style that provide intriguing clues.

 I’m recommending this to a wide variety of fiction readers–its fascinating combination of marriage story, adventure, and magic, holds broad appeal. As we enter winter, this is a perfect choice for a cold-but-cozy evening.

It’s Notable–“The Round House” by Louise Erdrich

I’m a few titles in to this year’s Notable Books List from the American Library Association, and just finished “The Round House” by Louise Erdrich.

 One sentence summary–An adult Ojibwe man looks back on his youth, and  his response to a brutal sexual attack on his mother.

 One sentence evaluation–This is classic Erdrich, excellent writing and even better character development, all wrapped up in contemporary Ojibwe culture–a great book group book.

 I find something especially compelling in novels about how crime impacts people. I recently finished another Notable, “Canada” by Richard Ford, with a similar construction of a man looking back on how crimes committed by his parents pulled his family apart.

 In “The Round House,” Joe tells the story of events that happened in 1988, his mother not coming home as expected, and then finally arriving home with awful injuries. Watching his parents floundering in response to the attack, he relies on his strong ties with friends and extended family. LIttle by little he comes to understand what happened to his mother; his father’s role as a tribal judge pulls in further information, and interesting aspects of tribal law. When Joe puts in place his response, it’s in the full context of all of the people who have surrounded him.

 I’ll recommend this to Erdrich’s fans, and because it has few of the fantastic elements of some of her other books, I think it might work for people who haven’t taken to some of her previous work. I think it’d also be of interest as an outlier for people who read traditional mystery series–a different slant on a crime novel, with an ending that isn’t formula, but is expected in the best storytelling sense of tightening and sharpening the telling toward a dangerously pointed end.

“The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes, another Notable

I’m slightly sheepish in saying that I was happy about “The Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes because it’s just 163 pages. As I work my way through this year’s Notable Books list, a shorty is a relief.

Barnes is a British writer, and here presents a British story. It’s told by a middle-aged man, Tony Webster, who looks back on his boarding school friendships and early love life.

Tony describes how his school group of three boys grows to take in a fourth, Adrian, who is especially smart and who sees the world a little differently than the others. When Adrian takes up with Veronica, a girl who Tony dated, Tony writes them an ugly letter.Tony heads off for an adventure in America, Adrian commits suicide. Eventually Tony marries Margaret, they raise a daughter, and then divorce. Tony feels himself going along and getting along. Then Veronica’s mother dies, and leaves something to Tony, and this brings back the past. It also brings Veronica back into his life.

Tony wonders what his role was in Adrian’s suicide, in the unhappiness that led to his death. HAD he done something terribly wrong as a youth? Was he responsible for…something?

I confess that when I got to the end of this book and to the revelation regarding this mystery, I had to re-read the ending, and I wished that I had the gumption to re-read the whole book. I went to amazon.com to read what people had written about the book, and was relieved that several had noted that the resolution seemed confusing and underwhelming, given the lead-up.

And that may be what is genius about this book–how remarkably realistic for Tony to look back from the distance of many years, and end up not quite sure.

And is that what makes Peter Barnes a genius writer? That he can get us inside of this man’s head, for good and for ill, and engage us in these reflections? Barnes is known for elegant writing, directing the reader’s attention to the correct place, using just the right word, and yet also shining a glaring light on people’s weakness. I’ll recommend this to my reading friends who are good with a literary novel, good with what is not expected, and good with Barnes’ particular “sense of an ending.”

What a Notable–“Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand

Finally, I’ve read “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. I’ve heard so many people comment on this nonficiton story of Louis Zamperini, a runner on the US Olympic team who became a World War II hero by surviving for weeks on a life raft, and months in Japanese Prisoner of War camps.

And it was good, one of the titles on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list.

Laura Hillenbrand (who has an interesting story of her own) follows up her stellar “Seabiscuit” with this compelling story. She tells it straightforwardly and chronologically. Hillenbrand has that gift for telling the story in a way that is clearly shaped and considered, for example, in how people are introduced and then brought back into the story, and yet her style gets out of the way of the story.

What I’ll remember from this book is both the evil behavior of many of the Japanese captors, and the survival of the prisoners. How DO people maintain their dignity and selfhood in the face of so many attempts to break them? In Zamperini’s case, he was made a target of beatings and cruelty because of his fame. Yet he survived. I knew that the sections set in the POW camps would be horrifying, but I found myself especially touched by Zamperini’s return to home. He was beloved, a hero, and yet he was falling apart, drinking himself nearly to death, before he turned himself around at a Billy Graham event.

I noticed how Hillenbrand goes out of her way not to judge the behavior the men who were stranded, or were prisoners. She works hard to set a context where every rule and every expectation are turned upside down, where people survive by doing things they never thought they could do. She also makes a point of developing characters, not allowing all Japanese or all American people to be presented a certain way.

I finished this book on Independence Day. It seemed an especially fitting day to reflect on the people who have been called the “greatest generation.” I’ll recommend this to a lot of people–fiction readers will appreciate the strong story, history fans will find sound information, and people who enjoy “extreme” stories of survival certainly will find much to value. I think that many people have avoided reading this because they shy away from the depictions of the camps, and I understand that. And yet I’d still encourage people to read this with open eyes and mind. The book’s subtitle, “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” reflects Hillenbrand’s success in showing that even out of this horror, goodness survived.

“The Sisters Brothers,” from the Notables List

Last week, I finished “The Sisters Brothers” by Patrick DeWitt, a novel from the American Library Association Notable Books List.

Charles and Eli Sisters are hired guns from the Gold Rush era of the 1850s. Eli tells this story of their final job for a man called The Commodore. As the story progresses, Eli makes up his mind to leave the killing business.

I’m trying to find a way to describe the tone of this book–it’s picaresque, in introducing a series of odd somewhat shallow characters. It’s often droll. And it is full of killing. I had to move my mind into a place where I didn’t take all that murder too seriously.

Eli clearly has a bigger heart than his brother. Eli reflects on how he might want to find a woman to marry and love, might want to return to see their mother. Charles seems not to reflect much at all, he thrives on heavy drinking and the adrenaline of taking a good shot.

Why is this notable? DeWitt creates clever scenes and dialogue, and he gives us a whole new sense of the Gold Rush. There’s an inherent irony in a hired killer pining for love and a comfortable home. The stark heartlessness of lives lived solely in pursuit of gold remains visible behind the humor. Hired killers see many people face their final moments, DeWitt makes the most of that opportunity.

My reservation is this–I don’t think that DeWitt’s idea for the Sisters Brothers’ story creates enough momentum to propel a whole novel. It’d be a brilliant short story, and perhaps overall more effective as a short story collection. I’m open to the idea that this may simply be a case of not matching my sense of humor. While I finished “The Sisters Brothers,” it never deeply resonated with me and seldom had me laughing out loud. And yet, there’s something about it that I respect. I expect that I’ll recommend this to people who seek something that is unusual, edgy and clever, and that points up people’s foibles while it reveals their behavior under pressure.