Posted by: Jeanie F | January 14, 2011

Happy New Year!

The holidays pretty much did me in, in terms of blogging. Between shopping, cooking, gift wrapping, out-of-town company, and a trip to Palm Desert, there just never seemed to be time to sit down and write. However, that DOESN’T mean I didn’t have time to read. Here are a few short reviews of what I read over the holidays:

THE BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN by Wallace Stegner

If you read my blog regularly, you know that Wallace Stegner is one of my very favorite authors. He has a sense of the West in the early half of the 20th Century that is unparalleled. His masterpiece, The Angle of Repose, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was listed by the Modern Library as one of the Best 100 English-Language novels of the 20th Century. Nevertheless, Stegner seems to be relatively unknown compared to other Western writers like Steinbeck and London. If you’ve never read anything of Stegner’s, I can’t encourage you enough to give him a try.

The Big Rock Candy Mountain is a semi-autobiographical novel of Stegner’s own life with his restless father. The patriarch of Candy Mountain is Bo Mason, a man who drags his family across the country as he searches for his next “get rich quick” scheme. Based on the lyrics from the song, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” Bo really believes such a place, an opportunity, a Shangra-La, exists:

There was some place where money could be made like drawing water from a well, some Big Rock Candy Mountain where life was effortless and rich and unrestricted and full of adventure and action, where something could be had for nothing.

 His constant search for this place, his inability to reach it, results in trauma and heartache for his wife, Elsa, and their two sons, Chet and Bruce. But for Mason, the Big Rock Candy Mountain was always around the next turn, in the next state, over the next border.  

For Stegner, who portrays himself as the son, Bruce, he is left with a sense of rootlessness. “How,” he asks, “did a tree sink roots when it was being dragged behind a tractor?”  Much of this book deals with America, and Stegner, trying to establish an identity, and there are long meditative passages that ponder the question, “What is an American?”

But more than that, there is the story of a family, a family that struggles against itself and its environment. It’s not necessarily the most loving family – at times it’s quite the opposite – but the strength of Elsa and her sons, their ability to withstand the vagaries of their lives with Bo- keeps you rooting for them all the time.

Grade: A

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WINTER’S BONE by Daniel Woodrell

Winter’s Bone tells the story of a 16-year old girl, Ree Dolly, who finds that the future welfare of her family depends on her. Living hand-to-mouth in the Ozark Mountains, Ree discovers that her father, a methamphetamine dealer, has used their home a collateral to help pay his bail after a drug arrest. Unfortunately, her father has disappeared and, unless Ree can locate him, the bail bondsman plans to foreclose. Ree’s mother has retreated into a state of depression or mental illness, and is unable to comprehend the situation. Ree must care for her two younger brothers while she scours the Ozarks and her family tree for information about her father.

This is an intense and harrowing story. The setting is so strong that it is almost a character in and of itself. The relatives she goes to for help are as unsympathetic a group as your ever likely to meet in literature, and the prevailing atmosphere throughout the novel is as chilling as the title leads you to believe.

In spite of this, I found myself rooting for Ree and the book hard to put down. It is often difficult to read, but felt like an authentic look at an American subculture that was quite foreign to me.

After I finished the book, I rented the movie on Netflix. While the movie is receiving accolades and will probably be nominated for many awards, I recommend the book.

Grade: A

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THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE by Julie Orringer

I resisted reading this book because I have felt overwhelmed and overloaded with Holocaust novels the last few years. However, I read several blogs and reviews about it that sounded interesting, so I decided to give it a try.

My assessment is, to paraphrase someone whose name escapes me at the moment, if this is the sort of thing you enjoy, then you will probably enjoy it. Here’s where you can read some of the many positive reviews this book has received:

New York Times

Los Angeles Times

NPR

Booking Mama Blog

Really, there are tons of positive reviews that celebrate this book. It must be me, but I’m afraid I found it repetitive, overwritten, and overly-romantacized. Feel free to disagree.

Grade: C-

Now it’s time for me to get busy and see what the rest of you are reading. I need a new book!


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