Tuesday, September 30, 2008
It only happened to me once in the draft of the novel that I finished this past spring, but the character who did show up made quite the impression on my friend Randy in my writer's group. I think he had a little crush on her. And I hope he's not mad at me for saying so.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Therefore, I was happy to see a new title of his this spring, Skeletons at the Feast, and sat down eagerly to read it (after letting it sit on my shelf, I'll admit, for a couple of months because I'm busy dammit!). Bohjalian's a "purely for pleasure" kind of a read. The novel doesn't satisfy any challenges. The books are afternooners, and I'm always happily surprised by their twist endings.
Skeletons at the Feast, though, is unlike any other Bohjalian book I've read. It's as emotionally impactful as The Buffalo Soldier and as epic as, say, Snow Falling on Cedars. As the Emmerich family prepares to leave the only home they've ever known, the end of the Second World War approaches. A wealthy Prussian family that runs a huge farm, they are luckier than most in that they've remained somewhat on the outskirts of the war. They've made sacrifices (the eldest brother is off fighting for the majority of the book; a ghost within the narrative itself, his story told through memory and referral) but in the months that follow, their lives will change beyond belief.
Displaced by the crumbling German empire and about to be overrun by Russians, legions of people set out on foot, walking west toward the Allied lines in order to escape the unspeakable horrors of what happens when they meet "Ivan." Mutti, Anna, Theo, and Callum, their POW (a Scottish paratrooper assigned to the farm where they lived to help with the labour) set off on foot with their father and Anna's twin brother, Helmut. Toward the beginning of the novel, Anna's father and brother separate from the group, as the two men are called into action. They leave the trio with Callum hidden underneath the horses' oats and head to the front. For everyone in the book, this journey is long, hard and not without its losses.
The powerful stories of two other main characters are intertwined with the Emmerich's: there's Uri, a young Jewish man who made a desperate escape and has been hiding among his enemies for much of the war, begins to travel with the family after meeting them on the road; and Cecile, a young Jewish girl who is forced to walk west with the rest of the starving, poorly dressed, and desperate members of her concentration camp as the Germans try to outrun defeat and shield their atrocities from the eyes of the world. The moment in the novel when all three stories come together as one, and the characters all cross each other's paths if you will, leads the book (obviously) to its conclusion.
Bohjalian writes effectively of the horrors of war, but you get the sense that some of his characters maybe aren't as fully formed as one might hope. Callum, the Scottish fellow, suffers the most from this, and his dialogue is often stilted, stereotypical and a little unbelievable (who says "chap" except in the movies?). The heart of the novel is the love story between Callum and Anna, the Emmerich's daughter, and it's fine, really just what you'd expect. But I adored the character of Uri, his moral centre, his ability to shapeshift, his utter sense of survival. I guess I look forward to Bohjalian's novels to bring a different sense of events to his novels and Skeletons at the Feast, while by no means a bad book, maybe just didn't live up to my own expectations of his work. That's not the writer's fault -- he's delivered a powerful, riveting, emotionally intense novel about a horrifying experience. It's war from the point of view of those who are surrounded by it, of those who are destroyed by it, those who must survive after the guns are down and treaties are signed.
To end, I would recommend the book, and it would be great for book clubs, but it hasn't claimed the prize as my all-time favourite of his books, The Buffalo Soldier still reigns supreme. And I have but one other bone to pick: what on earth is up with the cover of a young girl with short brown hair on a summer's day looking out over a field? What about that spells "victims of war driven to desperate lengths to save their lives as their world collapses about them"? Boo, I say, boo!
WHAT'S UP NEXT: I started Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife yesterday on the ride home. I'm already loving it. Can you tell right now I'm reading only for pure pleasure? But I guess under the circumstances, it's a wonder I'm reading at all, right?
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Miriam Toews writes in an almost Beat-like fashion in this novel while obviously putting her own touches on it and ending up with a truly original road book in The Flying Troutmans. To say anymore would be to give something away. I don't even want to link to the cover copy because I think it's better not to know anything other than the fact that Miriam Toews is one hell of a writer before cracking the spine. Trust me.
But I will say this: the whole book reads like a road trip. Strange and kind of uncomfortable at first then after so many kilometres it finds its own rhythm. Places whiz by and your mind goes off on a trip of its own. And it's all good. Things always happen on the road. Things you don't expect. People you don't think you're going to meet. Places you have no expectations about seeing. And despite the circumstances behind Hattie's road trip (she takes off with Logan, her 15-year-old nephew, and Thebes, her 11-year-old niece, after her sister's admission to the psych ward), it's a good experience. That doesn't mean it's not hard or bittersweet or painful or funny or difficult or gut-wrenching or sad or blissful or any number of adjectives. It means that the end result is satisfying.
And the ending. Well, the ending truly rocks. And right now I wish there was a Thebes in my life making me a huge novelty cheque.
READING CHALLENGES: The Flying Troutmans is part of my "For the Ladies" version of this year's Canadian Book Challenge. I'm pretty sure I'm at #4 now. Only 8 more books to go!
Sunday, September 21, 2008
So, let's add an even sadder chaser to the mix: Snow Angels. Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell play a couple that have seen better times and are now separated. Whether it's his drinking problem or his truly irritating use of scripture that split them up, it's irrelevant because no matter how hard he tries, they're certainly not getting back together. When tragedy (see, similar themes!) strikes, the two fall even further apart until the film comes to its ridiculous conclusion. To be honest, it was a bit too long too, as I kept falling asleep toward the end. And so dire. And dark. And bewildering. And kind of ridiculous.
But goodness, despite great performances all around, I wouldn't suggest watching these two films in such close proximity to one another while you're alone for the weekend and can barely make it out of your pajamas. Thank Mother Earth for gardening is all I have to say or I wouldn't have left the house once all weekend.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Not sleeping is always the start but that's coming around now and I've had three good nights. Then a prolonged illness doesn't help (almost two weeks and counting with this damned bronchitis). And add to that all the personal and professional (for lack of a better word) trauma, I kept sending notes to my friends this week saying that not only do I feel besieged, but that I might just crack in two.
So, I'm making lists. I have a hard time leaving the house in the morning filled up with dread at what's going to happen next. What shoe or ball or other cursed thing might drop and throw me right off course. Deep breaths, right?
Keira Knightley does surprisingly well as the Duchess, carrying off her more outrageous attributes to a tee, and has surprising emotional depth in the role. Audiences will surely despise Fiennes as the Duke, not for his acting, but for the nature of the part itself. The costumes are truly outstanding, the score to the film lovely, and on the whole, the picture was much better than I thought it would be after first watching the trailer.
It's also amazing to get lost in the history that surrounds all the pomp and circumstance of the two families. Georgiana, a Spencer, has infamous relatives (Princess Diana, as the press keeps reminding people) and Lady Caroline Lamb. And then with the Duke of Devonshire's peerage still in existence, it's consistently amazing to me how the ancestry of these families is passed down, traded up and titled. I can get lost in tracking it all. Clicking from one Wikipedia entry to the next filling my head with information that has absolutely no relevance to my everyday life.
Annnywaay, it's an okay film, a solid B, but I'd recommend waiting for it to come out on DVD rather than ponying up for theatre prices.
The story follows four very different women all connected by one man: Paddy de Courcy. As Ireland's most eligible bachelor, de Courcy has been courting women for years. Now that he's ready to settle down with Alicia, how will all of the other women cope with his absence from their lives? For Nola, it means she leaves her life, her job, and her entire world behind to escape the grief that her politician boyfriend is marrying someone else. For sisters Grace (a journalist) and Marnie (a troubled office manager), it means ending a life-long obsession they each had with Paddy. And, lastly, for Alicia, his intended, it means finally recognizing the love she's carried for Paddy since adolescence.
The lives of the four women intersect and the narrative changes between their four perspectives. If I had a favourite storyline, it would have to be Nola, whose breakdown is tempered by her delightful adventures living in her friend's uncle's summer house. But as with all of Marian Keyes's books, there's a hidden story behind the sweet writing that slowly reveals itself as each of the women confess their own problems when it comes to Paddy de Courcy. Being in the public eye, as a member of an up and coming Irish political party, does little to save face as the novel unravels his less than charming persona.
I won't give anything more away except to say that while I've been ill this week with that damned bronchitis, this has kept very good company indeed.
READING CHALLENGES: Chicklit, chicklit and more chicklit, but at least Keyes is Irish so that counts as a country other than the one my arse currently occupies.
The first Marilynne Robinson novel that I read was Gilead, and what a reading experience it was, exhilarating would be a good descriptive word. That novel sent me reeling forward headlong into Home, which comes out this fall, and follows many of the same characters from Gilead. Glory has come home to take care of her father, Reverend Robert Boughton (neighbour and best friend of John Ames), as his health declines in old age. It begins:
While, this new novel takes place concurrently with Gilead, you don't have to have read the first book to enjoy this one, as the stories, while they have similar plot points and some of the same characters, are extremely different.
The assured nature of Robinson's voice, her ability to tell a story, and the emotional depth of the relationships between the elder Boughton and his children, bring you right into this novel from the very first page and just don't let you go. As both Glory and her father await the return of Jack (brother and favourite son), who has been away from Gilead for twenty years, it's apparent that his presence will change their lives irrevocably and as only family members can. In many ways, Jack's visit is a blessing and a curse, as it brings both Glory and her father closer together but also forces them to reflect on the past, an exercise that truly brings out the richness in Robinson's writing.
When I finished the book at the cottage last weekend, I actually hugged the book. I may have uttered an, "Oh, Glory!" or two, as well. The novel picks you up and drops you so wholly into these characters that you can't help but want to reach into the book and hold them, befriend them, debate with them, and simply enjoy the pleasures in their lives.
Of course, my adoration of Home sent me reeling, again, for more of Marilynne Robinson, which led me to read her first book, Housekeeping. I've only just begun, but I am already enthralled by Ruthie's story. Here's a passage I read this morning in transit:
What do your lighted windows display? Right now mine would be filled to the brim of thoughts about Marilynne Robinson's books.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
The sky softens with the end of light. Reaching for something solid when there's nothing to hold. The woman slips deeper in the water, swims, snatches up her hand. A jellyfish has stung her. She gazes at its lurid pouch, fringed with cream: doll-sized weapons. Mute and deaf and blind, the creature glides forward as if this was what it wanted all along. Lifted on a wave, dropped on sand. A spilled sack. It'll lose its sheen, begin to stink. Later, a boy will poke it with a stick, just to see.The above is taken from the almost prose-like epic poem that makes up the later half of the book. "Ocean, Ocean" is a sharp and visceral exploration of human interaction with the body of water and its many metaphors aren't so much spelled out as inferred through the beautiful two line chorus that accompanies each one paragraph stanza. I was captivated by this poem and read it many, many times. The beginning of the collection wasn't as arresting for me but I was consistently impressed by the themes: the most basic in literature brought to soaring new heights by Simpson's wonderful poetry. Man versus nature, man versus man, nature in its most primal, effortless state.
Did you think you could miss this part? Everything is sharpened around you.
I am ever glad to have ensured that my Canadian Book Challenge not only included the ladies, but poetry as well. It's not as if I have to force myself to read poetry as much as remind myself how much I love it. Funny, too, as I had a conversation with someone at work who mentioned that they never, ever thought about poetry, that they couldn't care less. I was saddened by this statement only because poetry, while endlessly important, seems to never sell as well as much of the schlock that crowds out the shelves of the bookstores.
Everyone should at least buy a book of poetry. I don't even care if you ever read it. Well, maybe I care a little bit.
READING CHALLENGES: Quick is #3 in terms of my For the Ladies Canadian Book Challenge.
The story of a young boy who's kidnapped by a woman who isn't his mother and spirited away to the wilds of Australia, His Illegal Self is an arresting story. I think it's just not entirely believable. As a result of his mother's (and father's to boot) illegal activities as political radical protesters, Che (as he's called) lives with his posh mother on Park Avenue, spending much of their time at a summer home outside the city. He's only eight (I think) when the action begins and yearns for his mother who remains a distant memory locked away in his mind. When Dial shows up and kidnaps him from his grandmother under the guise of taking him to see his mother, everything that could possibly go wrong does.
As I said above, I did find the plot somewhat implausible; there are far too many nefarious characters in one place who consistently roadblock the way back to a legal existence for both Che and Dial. The voice of the story sometimes comes across as kind of alienating and more than once I found myself backtracking just so I could be sure I knew what was going on. Yet somehow, despite some little bits of confusion here or there, I did find the novel to be a swift read.
READING CHALLENGES: While I think I've already done Australia for Around the World in 52 Books (which I am so very far behind it its almost criminal), Carey hails from there so I'll add it to the list.