Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book Snapshots: "The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey.

Confession:  I purchased The Snow Child
solely on the basis of its wonderful dust-jacket.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey is an unusual novel, and that may make it worth reading for some folks.  Set in 1920s, it is about a couple who, at about age 50, move to Alaska to homestead.  This couple, Jack and Mable, have no children and the pain they feel over this is the book's central issue.

Amid the hardship and isolation of homesteading, Jack and Mable either see or imagine a little girl living in the wilderness.  Mable thinks the girl may be a child they created out of their love, longing for a child, and snow.  She recalls that during her own childhood, she read a Russian fable about an old couple who had done such a thing.  Eventually Jack and Mable meet the mysterious little girl, and the novel unwinds from there.  Who, or what, is the child?  and what will happen to her?

Author Eowyn Ivey, a native of Alaska, does great work showing life on the frontier, its challenges and beauties.  She uses the difficult life her characters have chosen so late (people only lived on average to their mid-50s in 1920) to further dramatizes Jack and Mable's sorrow over their childless state, which pumps up our apprehension when a 'snow' child arrives on the scene.  Although I found the last quarter of the book unsatisfying, The Snow Child is certainly a unique story.  If that is what you are looking for, then check it out and let me know what you think about this book.  I'd like to hear your views.



Saturday, March 24, 2012

"The Cat's Table" by Michael Ondaatje: A beautifully written story with a splash of mystery and danger.

The Cat's Table is a wonderful novel.   It is set primarily in the early 1950s and the majority of the action takes place on a passenger ship.  Traveling alone on this ship is an eleven-year old boy named Michael.  Michael is leaving his family in Sri Lanka to join his mother in England.  For his meals, Michael is assigned a seat at a table with nine people.  "'We seem to be at the cat's table,'" quips one of the group, "'We're in the least privileged place.'"    

This cat's table includes an interesting group of hard-to-categorize adults as well as two other boys, Ramadhin and Cassius.  The story follows the boys adventures on the ship, although the word "adventures" seems too strong a word for this gentle, insightful read.

Three elements of the book stand out:  First, it is grand to see people and events through the eyes of the boys on the ship.  Second, I like the contrast between the world of an 11-year old and later chapters in The Cat's Table where Michael is older.  Childhood looks more serene and magical; adolescence and adulthood are not that way.  Third, the adults on the ship are a wonderful collection of characters.  I particularly like Miss Lasqueti, who made the quip quoted above.  A woman of many talents, she spends her days reading mysteries in a lounge chair on the ship's deck, tossing overboard books that disappoint.  A character after my own heart.

A very enjoyable book.  The Cat's Table is recommended reading.


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"1222" by Anne Holt: Was the Suspense Lost in Translation?

Haiku to 1222

Snow blast, train crash. Trapped.
Foul play. Hanne save the day?
Nice; but low suspense.

Norwegian author Anne Holt is reportedly a very popular author of crime/mystery books in her home country as well as in Germany, Italy and Sweden.  She has written eight books featuring police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen.  1222 is the both the latest book in the series and the first to be translated into English.

The book has interesting elements, but to me they didn't add up to very much suspense.  In 1222, a passenger train crashes at an isolated mountain station during a brutal blizzard.  The passengers take refuge at a nearby hotel.  Subsequently, one of their number is murdered.  Isolated by the storm and mountain location, Hanne Wihelmsen, a retired police inspector who is wheelchair bound as a result of being shot in an earlier book in the series, is reluctantly drawn into solving the murder.  Sounds exciting, right?  Unfortunately, it wasn't for me. I found this read a bit dull, and wondered a number of times whether the story suffered in the translation to English.  Disappointing.



Friday, March 9, 2012

The Tucson Festival of Books is This Weekend.

The Tucson Festival of Books starts tomorrow.  I'm planning my schedule now. 

"Today" by David Miller: An interestingly constructed novel that has a lot to say.

Thirty pages into Today, David Miller's short novel about the reactions of family and friends to the sudden death of one of their number, I thought, what is going on here?

I finished the book a few hours later and thought, what was that?

Then, after considering the book for a few days, I read it again.  Like certain works of poetry or jazz compositions, it asks the reader to bring something to the piece, which makes Today engaging and interesting to unpack.  I found this tasteful novel to be well worth reading - and even worth reading twice.

Today takes place over a few days in August 1924 during which the author Joseph Conrad becomes ill, dies and is buried.  Conrad wrote such classics as Lord Jim, The Heart of Darkness, and much more.  He was born in Poland in 1857.  In 1896 he married Jesse George, an English woman, and they had two sons.  By 1924, Conrad and Jesse live near Canterbury, where the action in Today takes place.  In the book as well as in real life, Conrad had a secretary "of sorts" named Lillian Hallowes.  Hallowes, Jesse, and the two sons, John and Borys, are all central actors in Today.  Conrad is off stage while these people - and a multitude of other characters -  react to events and each other.

When the novel begins, a gathering is being organized at the Conrad home to enjoy the August bank holiday and to celebrate the birthday of Conrad's son John.  Everything changes completely and suddenly with Conrad's illness and death.  Author David Miller does a very fine job showing how the various characters experience this loss, and how they cope with each other and the formalities that subsequently arise. Miller steers clear of becoming overly sentimental.  Instead, the characters have truthful observations and reactions to the death of a friend, a father, and a husband.  That truthfulness about death is often touching.

To the central story of Today, Miller adds many elements which make the book entertaining to read.  There is dry humor, such as when Borys, telling a caller from France that his father could not come to the phone as he was dead, says to the agitated man " . . . yes, dreadfully inconvenient for you, yes." Also, many details are added to establish the atmosphere of Great Britain in 1924:  Miss Hallowes reports about attending the Olympics during her trip to Paris that summer and seeing Eric Liddel win a gold medal.  (The story of Liddel's Olympic run was told in the movie Chariots of Fire.); and everyone - including Joseph Conrad - seems to be reading E.M. Forster's A Passage to India which was first published that year.

There are also relationships to puzzle over:  What was the full nature of the relationship between Miss Hallowes and Joseph Conrad?  Is Borys actually married to the mother of his son?  One puzzle presented in Today I could only solve by turning to Google.  It came up early in the book when a telegraph arrives at the Conrad home from Sidney Colvin announcing the death of his wife, Lady Colvin.  Although the folks in the book know who Colvin is, I didn't and they didn't bother to tell me.  Colvin, it turns out, was an influential art and literary critic who lived from 1845 to 1927.  His wife did die in August 1924.

This brief appearance by the Colvins in Today is another example of a detail added to make us feel we are present in 1924 at the Conrad home.  However, it also illustrates one of the challenges of the book, which is keeping track of who is who, particularly at the start of the novel.  I enjoyed this aspect of Today as it creates a feeling of being part of the tumult caused by Conrad's sudden death, however other readers might be annoyed.

When I picked up Today, I was looking for a change of pace.  It certainly filled the bill; I can't think of the last time a novel sent me to the internet to figure out a plot element.  While this book does call for a bit of patience and demands the full attention of the reader, it is worth it.  Today is wise, moving, and entertaining.  It was a pleasure to read.  


Thursday, March 1, 2012

Welcome March!

Is March coming in like a lamb or a lion where you are?  Strong winds have been blowing around my home for several days now.  Perhaps March is historically windy.  When I was a little girl in grade school, the arrival of March guaranteed an art class in which we made kites.  Which reminds me that it's fun to fly kites, and maybe I'll get around to doing that this month as we segue into spring.

What I am definitely getting around to in March is reading Roberto Bolano's novel, 2666.  Here is a link to Janet Maslin's 2008 review of the book in the New York Times.  Maslin found the book "mesmerizing"; I think it will be challenging to read.  March seems like the perfect month to take it on, this final work by the Chilean author and poet who died in 2003.

Good Night, Night Circus

March is also the time to tell you that after months of having the book, I've only gotten through 82 pages of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  I am not going any further with it.  Many people love this book, but the story just doesn't appeal to me.  That's the way it goes with books and art.

What do you plan to read during the blustery days of March?  Let us know in the comments below!