Posted by: Jeanie F | May 25, 2015

Euphoria by Lily King

Euphoria

Loosely based on the life of the iconic anthropologist, Margaret Mead, Euphoria is an enticing combination of romance, adventure, and the study of native tribes in New Guinea although, admittedly, the tribes are mostly fictional renderings of the actual tribes studied by Mead in the 1930s. In the “Acknowledgements” at the end of the book, King says:

While this is a work of fiction, it was initially inspired by a moment described in Jane Howard’s 1984 biography Margaret Mead: A Life and my subsequent reading of anything I could locate about anthropologists Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune [Mead’s second husband], and Gregory Bateson [Mead’s third husband], and their few months together in 1933 on the Sepik River of what was then called the Territory of New Guinea.

King has changed the names to protect the possibly not-so-innocent as she has imagined what might have taken place during the short time the three of them collaborated. It is the story of both a love triangle and professional jealousy as these three characters (re-named Nell, Fen, and Bankson) come together to research a fictional tribe known as the Tams.

The interpersonal relationships form the tension within the trio – Fen’s domineering control of Nell, Nell’s professional exactitude regarding her research, of which Fen is jealous, and Bankson’s loneliness and growing love for Nell. The majority of the story is told from Bankson’s point of view with occasional additions from Nell’s letters and journals.

If this was merely the story of a love triangle, it would not have received the acclaim it has enjoyed – New York Times “One of the 10 Best Books of the Year,” The Kirkus Prize Winner, and Top 10 Books of the Year by New York Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, and Vogue to name just a few. It is a book that grabs you early, gives you not only the personal and interpersonal lives of its characters, but also an intriguing look at the interplay between early anthropology and the native tribes that were studied.

The opening paragraph sets the mood for both the “otherness” of the native people, as seen by the western scientists, and the difficulties that exist between Fen and Nell:

As they were leaving the Mumbanyo, someone threw something at them. It bobbed a few yards from the stern of the canoe. A pale brown thing.

‘Another dead baby,’ Fen said.

He had broken her glasses by then, so she didn’t know if he was joking.

King moves this story along at a breakneck pace, keeping the three anthropologists in a constant state of tension. The interplay with the Tam people provides an opportunity to examine the different personalities and ethics of each of the threesome through the manner with which each interacts with the tribe members.

By turns fascinating and disturbing, I would recommend it without reservation.

Grade: A

Posted by: Jeanie F | May 15, 2015

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

Butcher

It’s not unusual for me to finish a book that I’ve loved and then look for another by the same author. That’s exactly what I did when I finished Stoner by John Williams. I discovered that Williams had written three novels – StonerAugustus (winner of the National Book Award), and Butcher’s Crossing. If you’ve ever perused the titles I’ve reviewed on this blog, it should be obvious that stories of the American West – both past and present – hold a special appeal for me. When I researched the titles of the two Williams’ books I hadn’t read, I found that The New York Times Book Review stated:

Harsh and relentless yet muted in tone, Butcher’s Crossing paved the way for Cormac McCarthy. It was perhaps the first and best revisionist western.

Well, there was no way I could pass that up. I ordered the book and put aside the next book on my TBR stack as soon as it arrived.

Butcher’s Crossing is the story of a young man, William Andrews, a third year student at Harvard University in 1873. Andrews decides to leave Harvard and seek “an original relation to nature” by going west after hearing a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Like many young men, he is seeking self-discovery, a purer life, the ability to be one with nature which he believes can only be achieved in the American Frontier. He drops everything, grabs his life savings, and takes a coach from his New England home to Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas, a  town which “could be taken in almost at a glance”: six buildings built along a narrow dirt road and followed by a scattering of tents.

In Butcher’s Crossing Andrews meets up with a man known only as “Miller,” and arranges to finance a buffalo hunt. Buffalo robes are in fashion, and large sums of money can be made on buffalo hides. Andrews, Miller, Charley Hoge, a cook and wagoneer, and Fred Schneider, a skinner, take off across the prairie, headed to a mountain valley where Miller claims to have found a “secret” herd of buffalo.

What follows is the story of this hunt. Williams spares no details about the brutality of the hunt, the hardships faced by the hunters, and the bleak prospects awaiting the men when they return. Because Williams is such a precise and honest writer, this is often difficult to read. An small example occurs on the twenty-fifth day of the hunt when hundreds, maybe thousands, of buffalo have been slaughtered, skinned, and the remains left to rot in the sun:

Soon the wagon was so thickly surrounded by corpses that Charley Hoge was unable to point it in a straight direction; he had to walk beside the lead team [of oxen], guiding it among the bodies. Even so, the huge wooden wheels now and then passed over an outthrust leg of a buffalo, causing the wagon to  sway. The increasing heat of the day intensified the always present stench of rotting flesh; the oxen shied away from it, lowing discontentedly and tossing their heads so wildly that Charley Hoge had to stand many feet away from them.

This was not an easy book to read. The carnage of the buffalo hunt, the moral degradation of the men involved, the impact upon William Andrews, once so idealistic and naive, make us face the realities of the often romanticized settlement of the American West. In writing the Introduction to Butcher’s Crossing, Michelle Latiolais draws comparisons between the buffalo hunt and the US involvement in Viet Nam and Iraq. She concludes that:

John Williams’s unflinching attention in Butcher’s Crossing to the mechanical madness of human behavior suggests man at one with nature – man’s nature – to be a horrifying prospect.

Grade: A

Posted by: Jeanie F | May 1, 2015

The Painter by Peter Heller

The Painter

Here’s the thing about independent bookstores, versus Amazon or Barnes and Noble, both of which have their place. But with an indie, really almost any decent indie bookstore, you can walk in with only the vaguest notion of what you want to read, and someone in the store can lead you to exactly what you never even guessed you were looking for.

That was my recent experience at Cellar Door Books in Riverside, CA, owned by Linda Sherman-Nurick. My husband and I stopped there on our way to Palm Desert a few weeks ago, hoping to find something great to read while we were vacationing in the desert. I had a very slim idea of what I wanted – something similar to Kent Haruf or Ivan Doig, something that would take place in the western part of the country and would have a particular narrative voice. That was what I told Linda.

Linda walked up and down her well-stocked shelves for a moment, then pulled out a book. “Read the first line,” she said. “Is this what you have in mind?”

The first line read:

I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.

The book was The Painter by Peter Heller, and I was hooked at that first line.

Briefly, Jim Stegner is an artist, living at the foot of the West Elk Mountains in Colorado. The reviewer in The New York Times observes, I think astutely, that “The Colorado and New Mexico landscapes evoked in The Painter give the novel a deeper than usual sense of place.” The setting is so much a part of the action that it is practically a character.

While he is known as a highly successful artist in the American West, Stegner has a difficult background of violence, divorce, and tragedy. The story opens with him witnessing an act of extreme animal cruelty which sets the novel’s action into motion.

The Painter is, first and foremost, a murder story. It is not really a murder mystery, as you can see, because the opening line gives you an idea about who our protagonist might be.  It is also a story about life, about loss, about art, about love – and about fly fishing. Author Peter Heller holds an MFA in both fiction and poetry, which makes the writing lyrical, the story often moving into a contemplative mode that you rarely find in the suspense genre.

But have no doubt – there is plenty of suspense, as well as a darn good chase scene. There is also some beautiful language, as well as some interesting sociological riffs such as the following:

Why was I so hung up on anyone being brave? So what if 90 percent of artists, or people for that matter, were meek? Just wanting to get through the day without getting yelled at or run over? Just have a good meal. Most people wanted to do one thing today with a small portion of pleasure like maybe weed the garden and pick tomatoes, or make love to a spouse, or watch a favorite TV show. Maybe they wanted to sell a painting. So what? What did it matter to me?

Occasionally I found that these ruminations outside the story itself dragged it down a bit, but much of it was beautiful and often thought-provoking.

The information about art, the art industry, and specific paintings and painting styles was another diversion from the immediate story, and may put some people off. Personally, I enjoyed it, particularly since I could go to my iPad to look up paintings that are mentioned and see if I agreed with his descriptions.

The fly fishing is another story – I could have done without so much of it, but it is integral to both the story and the man, so don’t discount it.

I would never have known of this intellectually provocative, yet gripping, novel had I not happened upon Linda Sherman-Nurick and Cellar Door Books. Tomorrow – May 2 – is Independent Bookstore Day. If you don’t already know of a great bookstore near you, go to http://www.indiemap.bookweb.org, type in your city, state, and ZIP code, and find one. Your next favorite book may be waiting for you there!

Grade: A-

Posted by: Jeanie F | April 19, 2015

Stoner by John Williams

stoner-john-williams

In 2013, Tim Kreider, writing for The New Yorker, titled his review for Stoner “The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of.” And he is probably right. He goes on to argue that “Part of Stoner‘s greatness is that it sees life whole and as it is, without delusion yet without despair.” This book started out small, selling only 2000 copies in the original printing. However, in 2013 it topped the best seller lists in Europe and has gradually, almost stealthily, entered literary discussions about the American canon.

I know this sounds like a total buzz-kill, but trust me, this book pulls you in so tight that it’s nearly impossible to let it go, even when you’ve reached the last page.

Stoner is, first and foremost, a love story. Oh, not your conventional boy-meets-girl love story, but a deeply graceful look at the things and people we love and the way that love plays out, for better and for worse, throughout a lifetime.

Published in 1965, this is the story of William Stoner, a man born in the late 19th Century to humble origins. The son of farmers, he goes on to become a teacher at a fictionalized version of the University of Missouri. It is one of the most deceptively simple plot lines you could ever imagine: he goes to college where he finds he loves learning, stays in college, upon graduation becomes a teacher at the college, marries, has a long career, and dies. To quote Tom Hanks, writing for Time Magazine, “It’s simply a novel about a guy who goes to college and becomes a teacher. But it’s one of the most fascinating things that you’ve ever come across.”

In addition to his wife, daughter, and a small handful of friends, Stoner discovers that he loves learning, teaching, and literature. None of these come easily, so many of the reviews of this novel refer to it as “sad” but, in fact, while Stoner has his share of disappointments, he possesses a strong and constant spirit that allows him to rise above them.

I will tell you that you should absolutely read this book. But don’t take my word for it – here’s what more learned reviewers have had to say about it:

* John Williams’s Stoner is something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.

— Morris Dickstein, The New York Times Book Review

*Stoner is written in the most plainspoken of styles….Its hero is an obscure academic who endures a series of personal and professional agonies. Yet the novel is utterly riveting, and for one simple reason: because the author, John Williams, treats his characters with such tender and ruthless honesty that we cannot help but love them.
— Steve Almond, Tin House

*One of the great forgotten novels of the past century. I have bought at least 50 copies of it in the past few years, using it as a gift for friends….The book is so beautifully paced and cadenced that it deserves the status of classic.
—Colum McCann’s Top 10 Novels, The Guardian

*That Stoner is exciting – unexpectedly so, and incredible moving – is the true measure of Williams’s achievement . . . It will remind you of why you first started reading novels: to get inside the mystery of other people’s lives.

–D.G. Myers

Grade: A

Posted by: Jeanie F | March 14, 2015

Orhan’s Inheritance: A Novel by Aline Ohanesian

Orhan

A large body of literature has grown up around the Jewish Holocaust of World War II, but relatively little fiction has been written about the Armenian Genocide of 1915-18. Originally identified as a “diaspora,” defined as “historical mass dispersions of an involuntary nature” (Wikipedia)(Rogers Brubaker), the atrocities committed against the Armenian people during World War I are now recognized as genocide, the organized killing of a people for the express purpose of putting an end to their collective existence (Armenian National Institute). An estimated one and a half million people, out of an estimated two million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire at this time, died. For most Americans, little or nothing is known about this period in history.

Aline Ohanesian has helped to fill this void with her new novel, Orhan’s Inheritance. This gripping story frames the series of events that precipitated and comprised the Armenian Genocide with a current day family drama that sends a young Turk, Orhan Türkoğlu, in search of the past.

When Orhan’s grandfather, Kemal, dies in 1990, the family is shocked to learn that Kemal has willed the family home in the Turkish village of Karod to “one Ms. Seda Melkonian.” No one in the family recognizes the name, but the attorney who reads the will provides her address, an Armenian assisted living facility in California. Determined to meet this stranger and convince her to sign away her rights to the home, Orhan flies to California.

Following Orhan and Seda’s initial meeting, the story moves back and forth between 1990, when Orhan attempts to learn the connection between Kemal and Seda, and Seda’s own experience in 1915, when her family was forcibly deported to the eastern provinces.

I don’t want to give away any of this fascinating – not to mention heart-breaking and beautiful – story. Ms. Ohanesian has woven a tapestry of both the historic and the personal price that was paid during this shameful period, peopling it with characters about whom we care and come not only to love but to respect. It isn’t always a pretty story, but it is an important one.

Grade: A

Posted by: Jeanie F | February 3, 2015

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

Chast

 

I’ll admit at the outset that I’m a long-time admirer of Roz Chast. Her mix of humor and humanity appeals to me, as to her millions of fans from The New Yorker and/or her books. I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily a fan of graphic novels, although I’ve read a few and admire the ability to both draw and tell a story. When this book first appeared on the scene, I have to say I resisted it, primarily because I feared it would hit too close to home. I wasn’t anxious to relive the last few years of my parents’ lives, and I feared the book would be a real downer. As they say – oh ye of little faith. I should have known that Chast would bring her reliably honest, yet compassionate, eye to this topic. When it was a finalist for The National Book Award, I began to soften. When my husband gave me a generous gift certificate for Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, and I wanted to put it toward something I would never put on my Kindle, I took the chance and bought Can’t We Talk. Smart move.

Chast goes step-by-step through the process of dealing with aging parents – the initial denial that they aren’t as with-it as they used to be, the slow realization that it’s time for you, the child, to begin (reluctantly) to pay more attention. During this period, you recall all their idiosyncrasies, which are now being played out in HD. Eventually, the crisis – one or the other dies, falls, becomes ill. The equilibrium is shifted and you are now parenting the parent. The seesaw between impatience and guilt. The expense. The resentment. The fear.

I know – this all sounds like a real downer, but Chast’s humorous drawings, the frank honesty, and the intense intimacy with which she shares her experience had the final result of freeing me from some of the guilt and remorse that has stayed with me since my own parents’ deaths. It was, if you will, cathartic to read how many similarities we had in our experiences.

If, like me, you have shied away from this warm, humorous, human book I am here to tell you, fear not. You will cry, you will laugh, and you will finish Can’t We Talk knowing that there is at least one person out there who has seen what’s in your heart.

 

Grade: A

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