Book Review: Consequences by Penelope Lively


Author:Penelope Lively
Title: Consequences
Publication Info:
ISBN:  9780670038565
Summary/Review:

This novel begins when a woman from a wealthy family and a poor artist meet, fall in love, and marry with parental disapproval in 1930s London.  What follows is a narrative of three generations of women in the family today.  It’s a lyrical text that seems oddly plotless, just kind of multi-generational vignettes.  In fact the title is an interesting choice.  All fiction in a sense is about consequences – a protagonist makes a choice and then must respond to the consequences.  Yet this book seems to be less about consequences than your typical novel.  Anyhow, it’s a short book but it took me forever to complete, so I think that says something.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen


Author: Jonathan Franzen
Title: The Corrections
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2001)
ISBN: 0743510003

Summary/Review:

I’ve avoided reading Franzen and if it weren’t for my book club, I wouldn’t have read this book but I was pleasantly surprised.  Pleasant may not be the best word for this novel as it is an unpleasant story about a dysfunctional family and I swiftly found myself hating every character in the book.  It is a credit to Franzen’s writing that I was still interested in finding out what happens to them.  I was particularly impressed by the opening of the book where the narrative would follow one character until he met up with someone else and then the story would rather cinematically tag along with another character.  Franzen also did well at capturing the sense of dementia in the family patriarch and the spreading effect that had on the family.  Still, this book is not an easy read as these are nasty, nasty people.

Recommended books: No specific books, but I find parallels with the writing of Richard Russo and Jonathan Lethem.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Gathering by Anne Enright


Author: Anne Enright
Title: The Gathering
Publication Info: RecordedBooks (2007), Audio CD
ISBN: 1436102650

Summary/Review:

Dreary, overwrought, cliche-ridden, mawkish, pretentious, self-absorbed … these are just a few adjectives to describe this novel selected by my book club. Veronica Hegarty is the first-person narrator of this story who uses the suicide of her brother Liam as a jumping-off point for asynchronous reflections on her miserable upper-class marriage, her miserable childhood in a stereotypically large and confrontational Irish family and most bizarrely long passages on the sex life of her grandparents.  Enright has a thing for detailed and gratuitous descriptions of human body parts – whether they’re having sex or decomposing it doesn’t matter.  It’s affectations like this that scream “I’m trying to be a GREAT writer here!”  but just put me off.  Mind you, professional critics have given this book some positive reviews and it did win the Booker Prize. so don’t take my word for it.  Like or not though, this book is full of grief and rage and will not be easy to read.  The audiobook narrator is a bit over-the-top too, although that may be a chicken or the egg type of thing.

Recommended books: More Bread or I’ll Appear by Emer Martin, The Deposition of Father McGreevy by Brian O’Doherty, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott, and Every Inch of Her by Peter Sheridan.
Rating: *1/2

Book Review: Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell


Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Sweden

Author: Henning Mankell
Title: Faceless Killers
Publication Info:  New York : New Press, c1997.
ISBN: 156584341X

Summary/Review:

An elderly couple are brutally murdered in their farmhouse near a provincial Swedish town.  It’s detective Kurt Wallender’s job to solve this crime, but shocking as the murders are, they are secondary (maybe tertiary) to this novel.  The woman’s dying word “foreigner” stirs up the local community against refugees who are pouring into nearby camps.  Violence against the refugees and ultimately another murder make Sweden’s refugee policy (circa 1990) central to this novel as well as providing more crimes for Wallender to solve.

This novel is also a psychological portrait of Wallender.  He’s aging, conservative, his wife has left him, he eats poorly, he drinks too much and he’s somewhat lecherous.  The only thing he’s good at is being a detective and even there he fails to heed the advice of one of his colleagues in the police department.  In short he’s every cliche of a police detective, and yet he comes across as a full-fleshed, complex, and sympathetic character.  He’s reminiscent of a less-whimsical Inspector Morse.

I’m not sure if it’s Mankell or his translator but the writing is very spare and artless.  It is evocative of the cold, open landscape of rural Sweden.  This book is interesting in that through my American eyes I’ve always seen Sweden is very progressive so the controversy and racism regarding refugees was something I was completely unaware of.

I learned of this book from The Hieroglyphic Streets which contains links to other reviews.

Recommended books: Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields


Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Canada

Author:  Carol Shields
Title: The Stone Diaries
Publication Info: New York : Viking, 1994.
ISBN: 0670853097

Summary/Review:

First impression:  This author has a predilection for unsettling, detailed descriptions of human flesh in order to get the point across that a woman in overweight.

Second impression:  Shields also has a disturbing hang up about sex and sexuality.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Or unusual.

Third impression:  While this book is ostensibly about a woman name Daisy Goodwill Flett the reader rarely hears her voice.  Daisy’s family and friends are the narrators and often go on a bit about themselves more than Daisy.  Its like we can’t really approach Daisy, we only touch her tangentially.  In that way it’s reminiscent of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Fourth impression:   Who are these people in the photographs in the centerpiece?

Fifth impression: While each chapter is titled as a specific period in Daisy’s life, the narrative is nowhere near that linear.  Flashbacks cunningly fill in details we were spared earlier in the novel, as if we’re learning as we’re growing older, just like Daisy.  The chapters vary widely in writing style too – one chapter is the dying vision of her father, one chapter is entirely letters written to Daisy’s newspaper column about flowers, and one consists of divergent opinions from family and friends about Daisy’s mental breakdown. In this sense it reminded me of Ulysses.

Sixth impression:  The writing in this book is brilliant – moving without being manipulative.  I didn’t think I’d like it at first but for the second half of the book, I couldn’t put it down.

This book was selected by my W&M Boston Alumni Chapter book club and I’m also assigning it to represent Canada for Around the World for a Good Book.  After reading so many books by authors from developing nations who’ve relocated to Europe or America, here’s the rare instance of an author born in the United  States moving to Canada.  Despite that, and despite the fact that even the protagonist spends part of her life in the US, I like the internationality of the book, and at least one commentator considers The Stone Diaries to be the Great Canadian Novel.

Favorite Passage:

When we think of the past we tend to assume that people were simpler in their functions, and shaped by forces that were primary and irreducible.  We take for granted that our forebears were imbued with a deeper purity of purpose than we possess nowadays, and a more singular set of mind, believing, for example that early scientists pursued their ends with unbroken “dedication” and that artists worked in the flame of some perpetual “inspiration.”  But none of this is true.  Those who went before us were every bit as wayward and unaccountable and unsteady in their longings as people are today.  – p. 91

Recommended books: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, Ulysses by James Joyce
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies


Our Boston Chapter of the William & Mary Alumni Society book club selected The Welsh Girl (2007) by Peter Ho Davies for our April reading. From the dust jacket summary, I gathered this was a romance between a German POW and a local girl and figured this was a remake of Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene, required reading in Junior High School.

Luckily, it’s a bit more complex than that.  The Welsh Girl basically intertwines the stories of three people in WWII Wales.  First, there’s Rotherham a refugee from Germany, not Jewish himself but with Jewish ancestry, who becomes an interogator for the British and comes to Wales to take a crack at Rudolf Hess.  Then, there’s Esther a teenage girl who lives on her fathers sheep farm and pulls pints at the local pub.  Finally, there’s Karsten, a handsome German soldier who to his shame is among the first to surrender on D-Day.  The three characters do not actually interact with one another for the majority of the book, so what we have three stories wound together around similar themes: a sense of belonging, identity (both personal and national), and feeling caged-in (both literally and metaphorically).

Unfortunately, The Welsh Girl is a rather dull book.  The Welsh scenery and cast of supporting characters lend a great texture to the story, but Davies appears to reserved to really let us into the minds of his characters.  Thus things just seem to turn out too pat and convenient for the plot.  The conclusion is particularly disappointing as it has Rotherham basically providing a distant epilogue for Esther and Kartsen.  A nice read for its place and time, but definitely a novel that could use some re-writing.