Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Teaser Tuesday for July 26, 2016

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of A Daily Rhythm. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read (or the next book on your reading list)
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My Teaser:
 "I think prayers, determination, and crossed arms beneath a moon, well, all three just triple my chances. Don't you? I'd tell you what I wished for, but then it wouldn't come true. Let's just say it involves airplanes not plummeting through the clouds.

" What do you desire above everything else?"
--  From the short story Something Worth Landing For by Jessica Brockmole, in the collection Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War.

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT with either the link to your own Teaser Tuesdays post, or share your ‘teasers’ in a comment on Jenn's latest post, here (if you don’t have a blog). Thanks!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Devotion en masse

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth Church

Meridian is very smart, and she wants to become an ornithologist, something very unusual for a girl growing up in post-WWI in America. With the support of her mother, and knowing she has the blessing of her late father she begins that journey. However, when she meets the brilliant lecturer Alden Whetstone and realizes she found her intellectual equal. After finishing her bachelor's degree, he convinces her to put off her graduate studies to follow him to his new top-secret job in Los Alamos, working to end the Second World War, through physics. With her life on hold, Meridian looks for meaning in her new surroundings.

On the surface, Meridian is the type of woman whose abilities, combined with an inner strength, are exactly what society at the time shunned. Her defiance of those norms wasn't very unusual, even for that time. However, even back then, people expected even educated women and their jobs to take a backseat to their husbands' careers. In this regard, when Meridian follows suit, we are not at all surprised. However, this was the first thing that disappointed me about this novel, even if being exceptional has somehow become the cliché in books of this sort.

Church tries to remedy this with Meridian's affair with a younger man later in life. With this part of her life, we get to know the passionate side of Meridian, and along with it, the coming-of-age realization of the depth of her regret for what she could have become. While this is heartening, here too we see a weakness in Meridian that we would certainly have preferred not to see. Of course, Church does this because otherwise, I don't think she thought that the ending of this book would have worked. Here too, I have to disagree to some extent, although not completely. The question is which is more of a cliché? A woman who knows she's repressing herself (or is a victim of repression), and stays in that situation anyway; or a woman who doesn't realize her potential until it is staring her in the face. In short, my feminist sensibilities tell me that Church didn't give me the kind of protagonist that I was looking for.

On the other hand, I also think that Church gave me exactly the type of character that was truly possible to imagine. Knowing this, you really can't help liking Meridian, mostly because Church's honest and open style makes her into a very sympathetic character. We do see where Meridian's rebellious side comes through, and we feel sorry for her when she can't take it just a little further. In my experience, when I see a character doing something I would have advised against, I usually get annoyed with the character (or the author). Not so here, where Church makes us see both sides of what Meridian is going through, and this makes us feel the same regrets that obviously Meridian is feeling. This isn't to say that Meridian is a pitiful character, since she does have enough small mutinies (and one very large one) to help us still admire her.

You can see my dilemma, can't you? While it seemed like Church sometimes allowed Meridian to take what seemed like the easy path, or at least the one most expected of women from her era, we also see that many of her decisions were fraught with difficult consequences. This dichotomy makes this book frustrating and rewarding at the same time.
Not to mention the whole bird metaphor of their freedom that's closely observed, which despite the many references seemed a tenuous connection at best. Perhaps this is exactly what Church was going for, particularly if you think about this book's title.

Because of all this, I've been debating what star rating I should give this novel. I certainly want to recommend it, especially because I found Church's style to be inviting and compelling. However, in all honesty, because of my mixed feelings about Meridian, I'm unable to give it more than three and a half stars.

"The Atomic Weigh of Love" by Elizabeth Church, published by Algonquin Books, released May 3, 2016, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Travels for the Mind or for the Body?

On Trying to Keep Still by Jenny Diski

I was saddened to hear that Jenny Diski was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and even more saddened when she passed away. Interestingly enough, the first thought that went through my head was "why haven't I read more of her works?" I knew that I loved her writing, and frankly, I felt ashamed that I'd only read two of her books. While Diski wrote many works of fiction, I've only read her non-fiction "travel" books. (I put the word 'travel' in quotation marks because these are more memoirs through the places she visits, than books about the travel itself.)

The first book of hers I read was "Skating to Antarctica." The title of this book makes it obvious where she went, but what you find inside as the book unfolds is nothing expected. Although I read this sometime in the mid-90s, there are passages that I can recall the essence of, to this very day. That's what I call effective writing. Several years later, I read her "Stranger on a Train" book about traveling by train across the US combined with her smoking habits. Here too, Diski instilled the places she visited with touching personal observances of her own personality.

This book too, was something of a form of self-analysis. Diski explains how she prefers to not have to go places and be with people; that being on her own and doing what most people would call wasting time, is something that brings her joy and peace. Having to get up, get out of bed, dress to go places and be with people often fills her with dread. Knowing that most people do not consider this "normal" behavior is the negative motivation for Diski to face the world. Of course, knowing she's committed to writing about some of her travels is the positive motivation for her. What's more, Diski really likes the idea of these adventures and seeing new places. She just doesn't want to go there and be there, physically!

Even so, as Diski suffers through having to be around other people (which apparently is far more tolerable than she seems to admit), while looking for a quiet place to be on her own and vegetate, she delights us with her observances together with some quite funny self-denigration. For example, she describes going for her first walk in New Zealand (to keep the farmer from worrying about her reclusiveness), and being accompanied by their over-enthusiastic, but inept sheep dog, which is hysterical. I also adored her descriptions of her extreme lack of direction, and the problems she gets into because of that, even in her own home country. However, she imbues her visit to Lapland with such a sense of awe and wonder, we think that maybe this aversion to being around humanity might be wearing thin.

Still, this quest for solitude and desire for inertia is the theme that runs underneath all of these tales. At one point, she even thinks it is a shame that travel writers have to leave their homes in order experience new places to write about them. However, there's a little treat in this book for those who read it, in the guise of a short story she wrote, in which she comes up with a clever solution to this conundrum. All of this makes me realize what a huge loss the literary world has suffered with her passing. Then again, I remember that this book, like the others I've read, is truly delightful in every way, and we are so very lucky that she left us with such a beautiful legacy. This is why I am strongly recommending it, with a full five out of five stars.

"On Trying to Keep Still" by Jenny Diski is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), as well as new or used from Alibris or Better World Books.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

21st Century Fairy Tales?

Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams

Some book reviews are harder to write than others are, and this is going to be one of those. As I noted in another review I wrote for the website Book Browse (review coming soon), I'm not a fan of religious fiction, including Jewish religious fiction books. Furthermore, I've never believed in an anthropomorphic god or even a force somewhere out there in the universe with extraordinary powers. If there is something godly in this world, I believe it is the power within us to be good people. That internal goodness is what motivates us to help others and make the world a better place. Yes, I do believe that most of the prophets and characters in the Bible might have existed in real life; but I can't be sure of that. Even so, I do believe that the stories in the Bible (or at least those in the Old Testament) hold lessons that can teach us how to live our lives (including some that seem negative or invalid for today's world).

That said, I'm sure you're wondering why I would even bother to read a book called "99 Stories of God." The truth is this didn't sound like anything religious. The blurb I read that intrigued me was this "This series of short, fictional vignettes explores our day-to-day interactions with an ever-elusive and arbitrary God. It's the Book of Common Prayer as seen through a looking glass - a powerfully vivid collection of seemingly random life moments." While I initially balked at the "common prayer" bit, it still seemed to me that there might be something interesting here, something different from the usual religious fiction. As I read, I realized that this had absolutely nothing to do with prayer or religion at all. In fact, these little bits of prose were far more allegorical than devotional or even spiritual. In other words, they seemed like little fairy tales, that just happened to have one often-recurring character called "the Lord," and even he doesn't show up in all of the pieces.

Williams certainly surprised me with this book. For example, instead of entitling each chapter, she numbered them from one to 99 (of course). Giving titles to these would have probably defeated the purpose of these stories, since they might have given away the element that Williams was trying to emphasize in each one. Instead, Williams added a few words at the end of each vignette (all in caps, so we don't miss them), which allows the reader to take in the text itself first, so that the closing addition is something upon which we can ponder. I have to admit that I didn't understand the relationships between all of these additions, but it did make me realize that we (or at least I) often pay little to no attention to entitled chapter headings.

Another thing that I didn't expect from this book was how funny some of these stories were. No, they aren't the "laughing out loud" type of funny, but I certainly giggled and guffawed many times while reading this book. This element also gave give me some pause when I recalled the blurb calling this a type of Book of Common Prayer. Every time I found something humorous, I found myself hoping this misleading description doesn't stick too much, which might lead readers to declare this book as blasphemous.

By the way, I had no idea what the Book of Common Prayer was, so I looked it up. Apparently, it is collection of non-denominational Christian prayers. As I already said, I don't think these vignettes are prayers at all, but they are non-denominational, at least for the most part, and only seem somewhat Christian. That didn't bother me too much, nor did the rare of references to Jesus. However, I should note that I didn't much care for the fact that Williams was consistent in portraying "the Lord" as male, including with the clichéd white beard, but at least she didn't specify that he was white. I mean, if this is supposed to be how we perceive the "almighty" in today's world, why not have "the Lord" appear as female in at least a few of these stories?

Despite these drawbacks, overall, I did enjoy this book. Some of the scenes that Williams portrays are very complex, while some are so short and telegraphic that they deserve several readings and lots of thought. Since this book is such a quick read (it took me less than a week from start to finish, and remember, I'm a slow reader because of my dyslexia), that shouldn't be a problem. I think I can give this book a solid four out of five stars and recommend it for people looking for something unusual, which is both poignant and funny, but mostly thought provoking.

"99 Stories of God" by Joy Williams published (actually re-released) July 12, 2016 by Tin House Books is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Progress per traditionem.

Different Class by Joanne Harris

Much to the chagrin and worry of the aging Latin Master, Mr. Straightly, John Harrington is back at St. Oswald's, but this time he's not a student; he's the new Head. Harrington has some ideas of how he wants to bring St. Oswald's into the 21st century, but modernizing this old institution isn't going to be easy. Computers, renovations, marketing, re-branding and even uniting St. Oswald's sister school to finally introduce mixed classes are great ideas, but even they can't lay the past to rest. 
In Harris' latest novel we find out how sinister forces from the past could jeopardize this old school's future. 
I've been reading Harris for many years now, and I find her work to be very enjoyable. She has her vicissitudes, of course, but she really shines at character and plot development. The last novel of hers I read was "Gentlemen and Players" which I thought was absolutely genius. That's why when I heard that this new novel was also set at the boys' school of St. Oswald's, I knew I had to read it. It was only after I finished reading this that I discovered this was Harris' the third St. Oswald novel. Thankfully, I found out that this book takes place one year after "Gentlemen and Players," while the second book she wrote takes place four years after this book. Therefore, while I'm not reading these in the order she wrote them, I do seem to be reading them in chronological order regarding the action. Harris noted in a reply to one of her readers on Goodreads that she intended them all to be stand-alone. I have to agree, although there are a couple of references here that might confuse people who haven't read "Gentlemen."

That aside, as I already mentioned, Harris really knows how to develop characters and a construct a fascinating plot, and this book is an excellent example of how she blends the two. Personally, I think that she does this better with the darker stories surrounding the characters at St. Oswald's than she does in the lighter books set in France (beginning with her famous book, "Chocolat"). Of the books set in France that I've read, this melding of plot and characters came through the best in "Five Quarters of the Orange," probably because it was the darkest of her three culinary fiction books. The major mechanic that Harris employs is keeping the identity of one of the characters in shadows of secrecy for as long as possible. Of course, as we read, we make various assumptions about this person. When Harris eventually reveals this character, you will certainly be stunned. Furthermore, she waits to do this until she's just at the beginning of building to the big climax, taking us from a sudden surprise and then directly into the action speeding up - very much roller-coaster style. Harris used this with her "mole" in the first St. Oswald book, who was one the primary characters of the novel. In this book, Harris hides two different characters, one of which narrates about half of the book (shared with Mr. Straightly), and the other is a lesser, but pivotal character to the story. The way Harris manipulates her readers using this is nearly genius, and of a caliber that should place her alongside any of our favorite mystery writers.

I should mention that one reviewer of this book said that they thought Harris focused too much on Mr. Straightly's disapproval regarding the modernization of St. Oswald's, almost to the point of his sounding like an annoying, stuck-in-the-mud, crybaby. While this did come into play quite a bit throughout the book, I didn't find those passages at all distracting; I thought they were quite appropriate, particularly because they fit in well with so many other elements of the story. Most importantly, the old vs. new elements were essential to absolutely all of the characters' development, without whom there wouldn't be a story at all. I also found that sometimes these added a touch of humor as counterpoint to the more ominous feeling sections, and in a couple of cases, they were actually important to the plot as well.

However, while I disagree with that reviewer's assessment (who, I believe gave the book only three stars), I do have to say that I enjoyed "Gentlemen" just a touch more than this book. I think this is because in that novel Harris did a better job in building up the menacing sections of the story, as well as in surprising the reader. Even so, I think that I can't rate this novel with anything less than four and a half stars out of five, and I can warmly recommend it. (Now it looks like I'll have to get the other St. Oswald's book, "Blueeyedboy.")

"Different Class" by Joanne Harris, published by Random House UK, Transworld Publishers/Doubleday, released April 21, 2016 in the UK is available (to buy or pre-order) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

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