A Brief Review of Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine

When the Emperor Was Divine cover image

This is one of those “quietly good” books I keep meaning to read more of. Though only 144 pages long, it tells a complex story from five distinct points of view: one chapter each from the third-person perspective of a mother, her daughter, and her son; an odd first-person plural chapter told by the combined consciousness of the two children, and a very short final chapter in the first-person voice of the children’s father. This family is removed from their home in Berkeley during the Japanese internment. The children’s father – we learn slowly – was removed from his home on the evening of the Pearl Harbor attack, incarcerated first in Montana, then in Texas, and then in New Mexico. He remains in prison until after the war ends. His wife and children are removed from their home several weeks later and sent first to live in horse stables at the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, CA (now a mall where Jill and I used to go to discount double features for – what was it? – $5? Maybe less?) and then to Delta, Utah, where they lived out the war in a tiny cell.

What makes this book distinctive is its defiant refusal to explain anything – a wise yet sad strategy, I suppose, in a book about an episode in history that defies explanation. This book simply narrates. It’s like an exercise in simple narration from a Creative Writing I class – but an exercise done very, very well by a gifted writer. We’re never told outright that the family is Japanese. In the opening chapter, which opens at the moment the children’s mother reads a notice about “Evacuation Order #19” and immediately turns around and methodically packs her possessions and arranges to be at the train station at the required time, we rarely enter the protagonist’s head. Even when she starts to purchase a hammer, changes her mind, then goes home and matter-of-factly kills the family dog with a shovel, all we see is her determination – her actions, not her thoughts. The book is full of moments like this: when the 11 year-old daughter meets a man on the train and tries to lure him toward her mother (“Isn’t she beautiful?”) only to quickly retreat. When the son captures a turtle and keeps in in a box, listening all night long to the sound of its claws clicking against the box. When the family comes home and settles automatically to sleep on the living room floor as if they were still in their cell in Utah. When the father comes home. Holy crap, when the father comes home.

As quietly good as this novel is, I am actually thinking of teaching it to my eighth graders this coming year. Eighth graders and quietly good novels don’t always mix well, but I think this novel is emotionally resonant enough that it will win the students over, and the fact that much of the novel is told by youthful narrators is a plus as well. Most importantly, this book is an excellent tool with which to teach students to keep track of details and use them to make inferences. Like many quietly good novels, book is like a game of Taboo. Certain themes are present – the cruelty of authority, discrimination and injustice, the individual vs. society, quiet endurance as a central facet of the human condition – but they are never addressed outright. Like The Diary of Anne Frank, this book is also about the fact that life – especially the interior development of children and adolescents – keeps rolling right on ahead even under terrible conditions. I recommend this book to a wide variety of readers.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Julie Otsuka, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot

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When we were freshmen in college, Jill gave me a book of cartoons for Christmas called I Went to College… and it Was Okay. I looked for the book before I started writing this review, and I couldn’t find it. It may have disappeared in one of my many moves over the last 22 years. I did discover that you can buy a used copy on Amazon for $1.99, however.

At the time I thought this book perfectly captured the feeling of being an 18 year-old college freshman. For academically-oriented kids, college is the culmination of everything they have worked for in their lives – so why do they spend so much time staring off into space in libraries and walking to gas stations in the middle of the night to buy bad coffee? I wondered it then and I wonder it now.

Around the same time Jill bought me that book, Elif Batuman (and Selin, the protagonist of her novel, whom I assume to be Batuman’s alter ego) was filling out her own college applications. Batuman is a year younger than I am, and she enrolled at Harvard a year after I enrolled at Dartmouth. While different in its particulars, this novel perfectly captures my own experience as a college freshman.

To begin with, there’s email. At Dartmouth, we were issued Mac Quadras out of a big white truck and told to plug the Ethernet cables into our printer ports. Because so many students forgot this counterintuitive instruction and tied up the technology help line, the college pre-programmed each computer with a screen saver showing a picture of Dartmouth Hall with the words “Put it in the printer port!” I forgot the instructions anyway. I called the technology help line.

Within seconds of putting the cable in the printer port, we were online. We were told that Dartmouth was, at the time, the second most fully wired campus in the nation after the Naval Academy. I remember a website that was just a hamster running in a wheel. I remember porn about the Smurfs. I remember a kid saying in a comical tone in class that he had looked up an allusion in “the DCIS* Online Bible,” and we all laughed, students and professor, at the silliness of this. And I remember my dorm-mate Simon and his rubber chicken, Keith, whom I’ve written about on his site before.

*Dartmouth College Information Services, I think.

Batuman’s novel begins like this: “I didn’t know what email was until I got to college. I had heard of email, and I knew that in some sense I would ‘have’ it. ‘You’ll be so fancy,’ said my mother’s sister, who had married a computer scientist, ‘sending your e, mails.’ She emphasized the ‘e’ and paused before the ‘mail’” (3). The quotation marks around “have” are the best part.

Batuman’s protagonist, Selin, maintains this distant, almost anthropological approach to narrating her freshman year of college. The novel’s second page – which continues to contemplate email – could almost be written by a researcher from a distant land: “There was another world. You could access it from certain computers, which were scattered throughout the ordinary landscape, and looked no different from regular computers. Always there, unchanged, in a configuration nobody else could see, was a glowing list of messages from all the people you knew, and from people you didn’t know, all in the same letters, like the universal handwriting of thought or of the world…And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you – all the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it at any time” (4).

The intersection of Selin’s life with other lives begins in her Russian class, where she meets Svetlana, a self-possessed Yugoslav who becomes her best friend, and Ivan from Hungary, who becomes her love interest. Selin meets both of them during a dispute about choosing Russian names – in other words, about assuming an alternate identity, which is what one’s freshman year in college is all about, really. First as Sonya, her Russian-class alter ego, and later as herself, Selin begins an ongoing email flirtation with Ivan, an exchange that includes passages like “Things just aren’t that easy in real life. You can’t just tell an ache, ‘Go back into the rock.’ Moreover, I think ‘peace’ is misleading. It can’t possibly be the same thing as cereal” (148). As baffling as that is, Ivan – a baffling dude in his own right – picks right up where she left off: “Your atom, I think it will never go back to peace, to cereal or rocks or anything like that. Once it has been seduced there is no way back, the way is always ahead, and it is so much harder after the passage from innocence. But it does not work to pretend to be innocent anymore. That seduced atom has energies that seduce people, and these rarely get lost” (149). These passages make a little more sense in context, but not much.

I enjoyed the whole novel, but my favorite passages come from Selin’s first encounters with college-level liberal arts classes. Entire sections are written in a tone just like the “Findings” section on the back page of Harpers (here’s a sample if you’re not familiar with it). Selin’s weirdest class is “Constructed Worlds,” in which, says Selin, “we went to the Museum of Natural History, where we saw a brace of pheasants that had belonged to George Washington, a turtle collected by Thoreau, and ‘about a million ants,’ described as ‘E.O. Wilson’s favorites.’ I was impressed that E.O. Wilson had been able to identify, in this world of seemingly infinite ants, his one million favorites. We saw what was believed to be the largest skull of a living crocodile species in any collection. When they cut open the crocodile’s stomach, they found a horse and 150 pounds of rocks” (25). Elsewhere, Batuman’s prose style mimics DeLillo’s: “From the top of the escalator, all of Filene’s was spread out below you, like some historical tapestry. Then you were in it. As far as the eye could see, shoppers were fighting over cashmere sweater sets, infants’ party dresses, and pleated chinos, with a primal hostility that seemed to threaten the very bourgeois values embodied by those garments. A heap of thermal long underwear resembled a pile of souls torn from their bodies. Women were clawing through the piled souls, periodically holding one up in the air so it hung there all limp and abandoned” (52). And when Selin is assigned in linguistics class to interview native English speakers from different regions about the words ‘dinner’ and ‘supper,’ her two roommates, Angela and Hannah, square off: “[They] got into an argument about which was more formal, Thanksgiving dinner or the Last Supper. They debated the difference between supper and a snack. Hannah said it depended on whether the food was hot or cold” (31). This is what I remember about college – or about freshman year of college, anyway – the endless arguments about nothing. They were never fun, but everyone else seemed to be having fun, so you just sat there, thinking about how much you hated your clothes.

This has been point-and-grunt literary criticism at its best, I know, but when I read a novel that I really love, I don’t want to write about it. I want to show you the parts I loved best. I haven’t done this novel justice and hope you’ll consider reading it if you enjoy novels that combine a disconnected narrative voice, satire of late-20th-century academia, a wacky cast of characters, and brilliant, ironic prose – or even if you don’t but suspect that you might be persuaded. Also, I hope this novel wins the Pulitzer. That is all.

Posted in Authors, Elif Batuman, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

A Review of Jen Lancaster’s The Best of Enemies (by Jill)

 

Best of enemies cover

After reading Twisted Sisters last year, I was worried that I would not enjoy any more of Jen Lancaster’s fiction, but I decided to try again. And you know what? I actually really liked The Best of Enemies. Is it because I read it at a time when I really needed something entertaining and easy? Maybe. But that’s not just it. Jen’s actually getting better; she’s expanding beyond her life experiences and making new stories. It’s really cool to watch her range grow. And yes, the two alternating voices who tell the story of The Best of Enemies totally still have Jen’s distinctive, snarky tone, but they are not her memoir voice. They’re different. And I will go so far as to say that of the two of her books that I’ve read most recently, I actually enjoyed The Best of Enemies more than I Regret Nothing, which is a change.

Of course this new novel is very plot-driven, but there’s not a whiff of the fantasy that we’ve found in Jen’s last two novels (see my posts about Here I Go Again and Twisted Sisters). I was actually somewhat disappointed to not get to see more of Deva, the hippie-dippy astral projecting/time travelling character from Here I Go Again and Twisted Sisters, but the quality of the story was much better than those other two books, so I won’t complain too much.

Granted, the two main characters of this new one are drawn with broad strokes. They are essentially caricatures of real women, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t true portraits. Here were meet Kitty Caricoe and Jacqueline “Jack” Jordan, who were roommates their freshman year in college until Jack accidentally sleeps with Kitty’s sort-of ex-boyfriend. Somehow they manage to both stay BFF’s with the same girl, Sarabeth Chandler, who Kitty calls Betsy and Jack calls Sars. The novel is told in the first person, with Jack and Kitty as our narrators. Sarabeth’s husband vanishes under mysterious circumstances and somehow the two end up working together to investigate his disappearance. Jack is an investigative reporter, so it doesn’t make absolutely no sense that this happens, but it sort of makes no sense. That’s okay. The plot lends itself to spoilers, and I’m not going to get into it, because the surprises were part of what made this book so enjoyable to me. “Watching” Kitty and Jack remember why they were friends when they first met was, well, lovely. Jen Lancaster actually writes female friendships really well. She hasn’t really done that before in her fiction that I remember. Mostly she writes about awful women doing awful things and learning lessons about how one should be kinder to people. Here, her two main characters are not really awful people (except in their heads) who need to change their lives before they get run out of town like Lissy Ryder and Reagan Bishop were about to be before fate intervened and led them down different paths.

Overall, I recommend this book to people who either love Jen Lancaster or who enjoy chick lit; this is not a book for lovers of literary fiction, for obvious reasons. But if you need something to keep you entertained on a long road trip, consider The Best of Enemies. It will make the hours in the car go more quickly.

Posted in Fiction - Funny, Fiction - general, Jen Lancaster, Reviews by Jill, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of Olivia Manning’s School for Love

school for love cover image

This novel is about Felix, a British boy whose mother has just died. Felix and his mother lived in Baghdad back when Iraq was a British colony, so Felix, whose father is also deceased, has to make a long journey home by ship at a time (early 1945) when berths on ships are reserved for service members, diplomats, and others who are directly working to bring the second world war to a close. He has a sort-of aunt in Jerusalem named Miss Bohun, and she offers to take him in while he waits for a place on the ship. Miss Bohun is a sort-of aunt because she and Felix are not biologically related. Miss Bohun was an orphan herself and was taken in by Felix’s paternal grandparents, so she grew up with Felix’s father, as a foster-sibling. Felix has never met Miss Bohun before, but he has heard his mother grumbling about her. Nevertheless, he is determined to forge a good relationship. Felix, whose age is not given but who seems about thirteen, is first and foremost a lonely, grieving child who desperately needs love. One might think that Miss Bohun, an orphan herself, would be sympathetic to Felix’s feelings, but you would be wrong. This is a British novel, after all, and treating orphans compassionately is just not something that is done in British novels.

Miss Bohun runs a boarding house, and she is also a “pastor” of a religious group called the “Ever-Readies.” When Felix arrives, he meets Frau Leszno and her son Nikky, who also live at Miss Bohun’s boarding house. Their status there is a bit unclear. Over time, we discover that Miss Bohun likes to use room assignments in her boarding house in manipulative ways. When Miss Bohun was looking for a place to live in Jerusalem, she met Frau Leszno, who ran this same boardinghouse but couldn’t afford to keep it going. Miss Bohun aggressively befriended her and offered to take over the boarding house, promising that Frau Leszno and Nicky could stay on as partners. Long story short, by the time Felix arrives, other tenants have moved into the more desirable rooms, while Frau Leszno is living in a shack in the backyard and Nikky is sleeping on a cot in the kitches, and Miss Bohun refers to them as servants. In Miss Bohun’s words, Frau Leszno and Nikky are “Polish Jews but they fled to Germany during some pogrom or other” – a remarkably insensitive thing to say in 1945 – and Miss Bohun has taken advantage of their vulnerability. Over time, we learn that this is typical of how she treats others.

At first the reader picks up on much more of this drama that Felix does. His young age and his grief understandably make Felix a fairly solipsistic character. He doesn’t mind being at the boarding house with Miss Bohun. There is a cat there – Faro – with whom he immediately bonds, and at first he accepts Miss Bohun’s party line that other people are always taking advantage of her. Miss Bohun charges Felix through the teeth for his room – so much so that the British consulate advises him to find lodging somewhere else – and rations things like water, electricity, and milk. Felix’s reactions to these deprivations are muted. He feels glum when he has to spend his days in a cold, dark room, but he doesn’t know how to assert himself enough to complain. He would almost certainly be diagnosed with depression if the novel were set in the present day, and of course depression is perfectly justifiable in Felix’s situation.

For a while I have had a nebulous sense that the books that are reissued by the wonderful New York Review of Books Classics series – or the ones I’ve read, anyway, maybe 12-15 out of hundreds in the series – have a certain quality in common. This is no small feat for a series that publishes books from dozens of countries and a wide variety of authors. When I was reading this book, it came to me that this quality might be phrased as “less intensity than similar books.” I know – this is not very effective bit of literary analysis. The word “intense” means different things to different people and doesn’t have a value judgment attached to it. Intense things can be good or bad, and this label is entirely subjective. So let me walk you through my thought process a little. Imagine Miss Bohun in a novel written by Dickens. First off, her name would be Miss Plumpfingers or some such thing, and she would have at least one speech impediment. She would still complain about people taking advantage of her so-called generosity while also being the model of stinginess, and she would still be the pastor of the Ever-Readies, but she would do these things while also being a comic masterpiece who totally overwhelmed every scene she was in. Some readers would undoubtedly prefer Dickens’ version of her character, while others prefer Manning’s subtlety. I fall somewhere between these two camps. I liked this novel, but I didn’t love it. It wasn’t difficult to finish, but I could just as easily have put it aside and picked up something else without regrets. I like a good overwrought Dickensian villain now and then, and I thought Miss Bohun as Manning wrote her could use a little more sturm und drang. But then I realized that Manning wrote this character the only way she could, given that Felix is her point-of-view character. At the beginning of the novel, Felix is clueless. He’s clueless because of his age, because of the tunnel vision caused by his grief, and also because he knows that Miss Bohun is the only relative he has who’s not back in England, and perhaps he does not want to look too closely at her treachery. He figures out how to live in her house without conflict, to accommodate her constant outrage, to be the wick in her gaslight, so to speak. To write the novel any other way, Manning would have had to be untrue to her point-of-view character’s essential limitations.

As it happens, though, the ending of this novel is great. About halfway through, Miss Bohun takes in a new boarder named Mrs. Ellis. Mrs. Ellis is an extremely young widow – maybe 18 or 19 – and she’s pregnant. Young as she is, though, Mrs. Ellis is not naïve. When Miss Bohun rations Mrs. Ellis’s milk, Mrs. Ellis contacts the milkman directly and arranges a separate delivery just for herself. When she requests certain foods that Miss Bohun refuses to buy, claiming they are too expensive, Mrs. Ellis announces that she will eat her meals elsewhere and stops paying the “board” component of her room and board. In other words, she refuses to play the game that the rest of the boarders are mired in. Felix adores Mrs. Ellis, whom he seems to see as both a love interest and his reincarnated mother, and while she keeps him at arm’s length she does share her thoughts on Miss Bohun’s character with him, and his understanding of his sort-of aunt becomes more nuanced. The most important think Mrs. Ellis does, though, is ask Miss Bohun what the Ever-Readies are ever ready for.

The answer is the second coming. Miss Bohun is the head of one of the many millenarian religious splinter groups that congealed in Israel in the twentieth century, believing that the second coming was close at hand. When Mrs. Ellis shares these facts with Felix, his understanding broadens, and Miss Bohun starts to become more like my made-up Mrs. Plumpfingers from a made-up Dickens novel – not because she has changed but because the perspective through which we are seeing her has been given the tools to see her for who she really is.

You may recall that earlier in this review I mentioned that Miss Bohun uses room assignments in her boarding house as a way to manipulate her boarders, but I never really followed up on how she does this. In addition to Frau Leszno’s outdoor shack and Nikky’s kitchen cot, the sleeping spaces include an undesirable attic room, two rooms of reasonable quality on the second floor, and the much-mythologized “front room,” the nicest of all, which Miss Bohun never rents out but constantly cleans, arranges, and redecorates. Every so often she drops hints that she is considering moving someone into the front room, and then everyone is on edge to figure out what that person has done to earn such a privilege (and when the move never happens, everyone is on edge again to figure out what the promised resident has done to lose Miss Bohun’s esteem). It is Mrs. Ellis who figures out the true purpose of the front room: it’s for Jesus. Like Elijah’s chair at the Passover table, no one is allowed to sleep in the front room, but Miss Bohun makes sure it is always spotless for the honored guest she suspects will be arriving any day now. Mrs. Ellis’s further research reveals that the financial backers of the Ever-Readies are paying Miss Bohun quite well for keeping the Risen Lord’s room available for Him 24/7, meaning that all the quibbling over pennies and nickels (or their equivalent in 1945 Jerusalem) has been unnecessary and ridiculous.

School for Love is a well-wrought example of the narrative technique called the first person/minor character point of view. In other words, Felix isn’t truly the protagonist. We think he is the protagonist because we see the action of the novel through his eyes, but really we are along for the ride behind his eyes, watching Miss Bohun come into clearer and clearer focus as the novel progresses. It’s true that Felix grows and changes (and that growth and change is one mark of a protagonist), but his growth is just a tool to allow us to see Miss Bohun better.

I liked this book and admire the mind that created it. I look forward to reading more of Manning’s work, and I plan to keep working on my theory about what the NYRB Classics books all have in common. I don’t think I’ve put my finger on it yet.

Posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Olivia Manning, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

A Review of John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story

Cover Image of American Philosophy

If nothing else, this memoir will make book lovers everywhere envious of John Kaag. Some six or seven years before he wrote this book, Kaag was in rural New Hampshire helping to organize a conference on William James. He was suffering from depression, his marriage was in shambles, and he felt that his career was at an impasse (this is not the part you’re supposed to envy). Though talking with strangers was not characteristic of Kaag, for reasons he didn’t quite understand he started a conversation with a 93 year-old man in a roadside coffee shop. When the man learned that Kaag was a philosophy professor, he offered to bring Kaag to the estate where he grew up – the estate of the philosopher Ernest Hocking, where – he said – there was a library.

OK, you can start envying now.

What Kaag found was an overgrown plot of land and a stone building the size of a small house. He tried a door and found it was unlocked. While the man he met at the coffee shop was off doing other things on the property, Kaag entered the library and found it full of books, many of which were valuable first editions. Even more shocking was the fact that many of the books were filled with the marginalia of Ernest Hocking or of other, even earlier and more distinguished philosophers. Some first editions dated back to Locke and Hobbes in the seventeenth century. The stone library was not an ideal storage unit for these treasures, and many of the books were moldy and nibbled upon by small animals.

American Philosophy: A Love Story is the story of Kaag’s quest to save and catalogue the books in the Hocking Library. Through the man he met at the coffee shop, he is introduced to Ernest Hocking’s granddaughters, who listen to his plea and happily authorize him to catalog their grandfather’s books and – eventually – find a home for them in a university library with the climate-control system and other facilities needed to store antique books. It is also the story of Kaag’s decision to finally end his terrible marriage and confess his love for a colleague, Carol. Before that happens, though, Kaag’s dark night of the soul gets even darker. He contracts Lyme Disease at the library and has a humiliating experience when – in the middle of contemplating Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” – he has a flat tire in a rural area along a dangerous stretch of highway and realizes that he has never learned to change a tire. The first third of the book is full of camping mishaps, accidental run-ins with animal poo, and the continuing trials of Kaag’s horrible marriage. Slowly, though, things start to improve. He is continually inspired by the books he finds and the annotations he reads in them, often written by giants like Emerson and William James. He begins cultivating a relationship with his colleague Carol, who returns from a holiday break and tells Kaag that her marriage is ending too. She begins accompanying him to the library. They camp together, share motel rooms, and fall in love in a cloud of wisdom, old-book smell, and possible hantavirus.

I really loved this book. I knew only a few basics about the philosophers Kaag cites the book, which is to say that I know Transcendentalism well, know what pragmatism is and that William James is the father of it, and have a general awareness of how the focus of Western philosophy gradually shifted away from the individual’s relationship with God, first to his relationship with society (think of Hobbes and Locke) and then to his relationship with himself, with an emphasis on self-determination and individual identity. While his own approach is not religious, Kaag writes with great insight about Dante, whose three-part Divine Comedy is very much on Kaag’s mind as he journeys through his own hell and Purgatory. Kaag empathizes with William James’ own depression and in general treats the philosophers he writes about as if they were family members. If the idea of reading a book about philosophy intimidates you, don’t worry. This book is much more memoir than textbook. Think of it as Wild but with less cocaine.

I thoroughly recommend this book to general readers who are interested in an honest, cogent memoir about a personal journey from isolation to love and union.

Posted in John Kaag, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Literary Studies, Nonfiction - Memoir/Biography, Nonfiction - Philosophy, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Review of Cecilia Ekbäck’s Wolf Winter (by Jill)

Wolf Winter cover

 

Wolf Winter has the odd distinction of being both the last book I started in 2016 and the first book I finished in 2017. It often annoys me if the last book/first book spends too much time on either side of the year break, but that’s a weird one of my Rules of Reading. It’s not even a rule, really. It’s more like a dumb thing that annoys me. This book was the January 2015 edition of Powell’s Indiespensible subscription service. I guess I’m a little behind on my Indiespensible reading (which also annoys me. Oh no, please don’t let this post turn into a litany of miniscule things that annoy me on a daily basis….)

I am pretty sure that this is a truism of reading: any book that one ends up reading during the month of December will take twice as long to finish as it would at any other time of year. I am glad, however, that I read Wolf Winter in the dead of winter, because it is a story of a winter that is deeper and darker than any I have ever experienced. The setting is eighteenth century Swedish Lapland, which is the northernmost part of Sweden, which means come winter it’s really dark and really cold and really snowy. The main characters are Maija, and her daughters Frederika and Dorotea, who come to Sweden with their husband/father Paavo, who is absent for much of the winter of the title. He goes south to look for work, and the women are left behind. But even before Paavo leaves, and actually before much of anything has happened, Dorotea and Frederika find a dead, mutilated body up on the local mountain, Blackåsen. Turns out it is the body of a man named Eriksson, a local man who has a few too many people with reasons to murder him. Maija is a medicine woman of sorts, and somehow ends up helping the local priest (who is new to the town, and not beloved amongst the locals) investigate Eriksson’s murder. There are all kinds of long-buried secrets in the snow here, and also a whiff of indigenous person mysticism, which Frederika is drawn to when she starts seeing and interacting with the ghost of Eriksson. I was disappointed that the ghost story aspect wasn’t fleshed out more, but one can only do so much with 350-ish pages. I almost wondered while I was reading if the author was going to write more books about these characters, if only because the Scandinavians are known for their crime fiction and this was at its core a murder mystery novel (which tend to be more series than stand alone novels), albeit a historical fiction one, and one that dips into literary fiction and magical realism too. I’m sure some people think Ekbäck is straddling too many genres here, but I actually quite liked the genre-straddling, and I think she did a great job with it. (Bethany: is “genre-straddling” a thing? If not, can we make it one?) I will definitely be looking for more books by Ekbäck, especially if I can spend more time with Maija and Frederika. The details have gotten a bit dim in the three months since I finished this book, but I remember thinking that both Maija and Frederika were women fighting the customary roles of women of their time: Maija likes having responsibilities beyond those of her home and family; Frederika wishes she could still go to school with her younger sister, but that time in her life has passed and she needs to be at home helping her mother. Both find ways to be more than what their society expects of them, and watching them age and grow in life experiences would be, I think, a venture worth people’s time and attention.

Posted in Cecilia Ekback, Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, Fiction - Mystery, Reviews by Jill | Leave a comment

A funny thing happened on my way to write some blog posts…. (by Jill)

It goes without saying that my presence on the blog has been limited lately. Life has been, well, busy for the past year. At work, one thing they tell us when you’re running behind is to not get too involved in making excuses to the clients you’re late for. They don’t care why you’re late, they just want you present and focused when you go get there. So I’m not going to spend a ton of time making excuses or trying to tell you guys about all the diabetics and deranged knees and ear infections I’ve had to deal with. If you wanted to read about my adventures as a veterinarian, you’d be reading that blog (there isn’t one, so don’t go looking for it). But you’re reading a book blog, so I’ll talk about books. I came up with the idea last night to just get myself caught up quickly, and doing a single post with brief thoughts on all the books I haven’t posted about so I can check them off my list and more along. So that’s what I’m doing.

 

I Regret Nothing, Jen Lancaster

I started a post about this book a few weeks ago, but found myself getting nowhere fast. I feel like all of my recent posts about Jen Lancaster books involve me saying that this one isn’t as good as her earlier books. That statement is definitely true here. I read Jen Lancaster because I love her voice, and I want to keep up with her. She’s like an old friend with whom I don’t have much in common anymore, but the affection is still there. I Regret Nothing continues the cataloging of Jen’s adventures in “adulting,” including a trip to Italy (and Jen does it right—she takes Italian lessons so she can communicate with the people she meets in their native language, she avoids tourist traps) and starting a furniture refinishing business and trying not to get blackout drunk on her annual girls’ trip to Savannah. Jen was more amusing when she was worse at adulting than she is here, but I still enjoyed this book. Her stories about her pets and her snarky comments about the people in her Italian classes saved it for me.

 

A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson

It is a tragedy to me that I let so much time pass between finishing Kate Atkinson’s latest book and writing about it. I love Kate Atkinson, have since maybe 2000, and am glad that she has achieved a measure of commercial success. A God in Ruins is a companion piece to Life After Life, focusing on Teddy Todd, the younger brother of Ursula Todd, the protagonist of the first novel. Teddy is not able to reset time life his sister, and is stuck living the same life once, as far as we know. Historical fiction is a favorite genre of mine, so having one of my favorite authors write not one, but two historical fiction works, is like a huge deal for me. I am torn between wanting Atkinson to keep writing about the Todd family and wanting her to go back to her Jackson Brodie detective novels (I love mysteries too), but I figure either way she goes next will be a win for me. I loved A God in Ruins, and will refer you to Bethany’s post about it if you want more details.

 

The Awakening and other stories, Kate Chopin

This book is one of my boss’s. The copy I have may or may not be older than I am, so that was kind of intimidating. I had read The Awakening before, of course, in college or maybe high school. Maybe I’d read one of the short stories before, but I can’t remember. In short, I loved this collection. The stories take place in the late nineteenth century, mostly in the south, but I think there were others set in different places. Sadly, I don’t remember much by way of details at this point, but I definitely recommend reading any and all Kate Chopin stories that come your way. Her ability to create a complete world in a small number of words and pages is akin to Alice Munro’s.

 

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

I finally read this book after years of being harassed by my husband about how I needed to read it after he publicly shamed me on Facebook for not having read it before. Bethany said in that thread of comments that she thought people would only enjoy Fahrenheit 451 if they read it when they were adolescents. I can’t remember her reasoning at this late date, and that conversation probably happened close to 9 months ago. I’ll never find it buried in social media. I partially agree with her opinion, but not completely. I did enjoy this teeny tiny proto-dystopian novel. I wished there had been, oh, you know, more like hunger games action type action or Divergent type genetic manipulation. The biggest thing in this book was a four-walled interactive TV, which I still can’t totally wrap my head around, because I’m trying to liken it to something we have now: is it like Skype? Are the screens 4K UltraHD? What sort of WiFi speed must they need for something like that? And why aren’t they just streaming Netflix? And the answer comes to me in a flash: they aren’t live chatting on Facebook because Bradbury didn’t know that Facebook was going to be a thing back in 1953. I wish I had read this book back when I was a sophomore in high school and read 1984 and Brave New World, both of which I loved. I wonder how I would have felt about Fahrenheit 451 then.

 

In Twenty Years, Allison Winn Scotch

I read this book because it was a Kindle Unlimited book and I was on vacation and needed something light to read while laying by the pool in Mexico. In Twenty Years fit the bill. This novel has no message, other than the one that’s obvious to anyone who has lived more of their life since finishing high school than she lived before and during it: time accelerates after the age of twenty-two. It is the story of a group of college friends who are called to reunite at the house where they lived together by the ghost of their dead roommate. The gang is not as close as they once were, and some of them parted on terrible terms. Over the course of a long summer weekend, these people air all of their dirty laundry and figure out where they all got so turned around in their lives. It was compelling but not a future award-winner. BTW, it wasn’t a real ghost who summoned them; this was not that sort of book.

 

Trail of Broken Wings, Sejal Badani

Another Kindle Unlimited book! Loved this book. Was about an Indian family, three sisters, a mother, and a very abusive father who falls into a coma at the start, calling home the prodigal daughter. Her two sisters have stayed close to home. While they wait for their father to recover or die, secrets are revealed and relationships are mended. My hair stylist and I often make fun of Kindle Unlimited books and how they are low quality tripe, but this was actually a really good book, though a bit overwrought. I did really like it, and think most people would enjoy it.

 

The Man in the High Castle, Phillip K. Dick

Another Kindle Unlimited book. I thought I would love this one. Yes, I read it because of the Amazon show, though I don’t watch it. In case you don’t know, this novel supposes that German and Japan had won World War II and divided the USA up between them. It was fascinating to read about what Dick thought might have become of us twenty years after this not-event happened. I had kind of a hard time with this book, not because it was poorly written, and not because it was boring, but because I guess I wanted more information about the particulars of the Allies losing the war. I enjoyed glimpsing the lives of the Japanese living in San Francisco and the Jews hiding in San Francisco and the Americans living as second-class citizens in San Francisco. It was disturbing but fascinating. I’m not going to watch the show, though, because I know that liberties have been taken with Dick’s source material and for some reason, this time, that’s not okay with me. This is a thinking person’s speculative fiction novel, and don’t go into it thinking it’s going to be action-packed, because it isn’t. I was also a bit annoyed that Dick drops us into these peoples’ lives and then pulls us back out again before anything is resolved. I wanted to know what happened next.

 

Burying the Honeysuckle Girls, Emily Carpenter

This novel was the last one I finished in 2016, and was another Kindle Unlimited selection. I’d put this in the same category as In Twenty Years: a fast-paced plot driven novel directed at women of a certain age. In this book, our protagonist, Althea, returns home to Mobile, Alabama following yet another trip to rehab. Her family has a problem: all the women develop schizophrenia when they turn thirty. Or do they? Burying the Honeysuckle Girls was completely compelling, escapist fiction, which is the only kind of book I’ve been able to focus on lately. Carpenter did a good job getting me to care about Althea, who seems like she was kind of a terrible person prior to the action of the novel. But she’s trying to do better, and isn’t that all we can do? Try? It was part mystery, part addiction/recovery tale, part historical fiction, part southern gothic, and I definitely enjoyed it, though perhaps it, too, was a bit overwrought….

 

And that brings me to the end of 2016. I hope I can get some thoughts up about the books I’ve read so far in 2017 soon.

Posted in Partial Reviews, Reviews by Jill, Uncategorized | 3 Comments