Friday, July 30, 2010

Review of The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger is a ghost story, and like all good ghost stories, it was perfectly creepy. It was even scary enough at one point that I put the book down for the night and decided to read the rest of the chapter in the light of day. Usually I don't like mysteries or thrillers because I always want to know who dunnit and don't have the patience to read through the whole book to find out. But The Little Stranger isn't your typical mystery. There is no major crime or murder that takes place at the beginning, but instead a slow build of misery and torment that subtly takes over the lives of the main characters.

The story is set in post-war small-town England. Dr. Faraday (we never learn his first name) is a country doctor who has managed to cobble together a small practice that keeps him busy and in business. He is from a poor family, and although he managed to become a doctor, he is still of the 'other' class, not in the same echelon as the Ayers family. The Ayers own Hundreds Hall, a huge estate out in the country that has been in their family since the 1700s. Dr. Faraday's mother was once a servant there, and he has vivid memories of visiting Hundreds as a little boy and marveling at the grandeur and beauty of the mansion, so much so that he once secretly pried a little piece of molding off the wall to keep as his own. But in 1947, Hundreds is on the decline. Mr. Ayers has died, leaving Mrs. Ayers and their two grown children, Roderick and Caroline, to care for the estate. When Dr. Faraday arrives at the house in response to a medical call, he is shocked by its decline and dilapidated state. In many ways, he takes it personally, even though he has no reason to, as his connection to the estate is far removed. In the coming year he establishes a close relationship with the family as their doctor, and it is during this time that strange things start to occur at Hundreds. The events start off small -- changes in behaviors of Hundreds' inhabitants, bizarre sounds and noises, smudges on the walls that weren't there before. But as the year progresses, the house takes a more serious toll on everyone who lives there, with tragic consequences for both the Ayers family and Dr. Faraday.

What I enjoyed most about The Little Stranger was the subtle progression of drama, fear and creepiness that, as a reader, you don't necessarily realize you're in the midst of until you find yourself glued to the pages and getting a little jumpy at sudden noises. Except for a couple of dramatic events (a fire and an inexplicably locked door), nothing in the book is absolutely terrifying, but instead it's the combination of all the little things that make the story scary. Waters also manages to weave in other themes of class and money that were (and are?) so much a part English life, and these play into how the characters deal with the strange events unfolding around them.

The story is told from Dr. Faraday's perspective, and as we get to the end of the book, several things are thrown into question, most notably Dr. Faraday's narration of the story itself. He is the epitome of the 'unreliable narrator', and this made the last chapter quite riveting, because the reveal is not what you expect.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review of Olive Kitteridge

I had high hopes for Olive Kitteridge when I picked it up. I'd heard about it for a while (although I'm not sure where or from whom), and had this idea that it was going to just blow me away (it won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction). It didn't, and there's probably a take-away lesson here about how I should ignore the 'winner' stickers on book covers.

Olive Kitteridge is actually a collection of 13 short stories bound together by the title character, who appears in each one. Olive is a larger-than-life character, with a strong, loud, and pushy personality. Like most abrasive people though, she uses her bravado to mask deep insecurities and repressed emotions. She is not at all sophisticated from either a physical or emotional perspective, and resents those who she doesn't understand or feels threatened by. But she cares deeply for people, and that is her one redeeming characteristic.

I understand why the book was so well-received: Strout is a very good writer who is able to capture the subtleties of emotion in her characters and the complexities of relationships. But there was always something at the end of each story that left me wanting -- perhaps this was Strout's intention -- the stories are all raw (and even bleak) in an attempt to realistically portray life in small-town Maine. But there was rarely any closure, and the emotional frustration or repressed anger was always still lingering when the story was over, which made it difficult for me to actually enjoy the experience of reading the book.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Review of Little Bee

I picked up Little Bee when I was at the airport and looking for a new book. I had no idea what I was buying, and selected it because of its cover (both the artwork and a positive quote from the New York Times Book Review got me (I'm a sucker for those 'winner of this-or-that book award' stickers too)). I figured that it couldn't be a terrible read and would get me through the flight to New York. And I was right.

Little Bee was a totally decent read. Little Bee is the adopted name of a teenage girl who has fled her native Nigeria after witnessing the illegal destruction of her home and the murder of her family by an oil company so they can access vast reserves located under the site of her village. The only reason she is still alive is because of a chance encounter with a British couple who were stupidly vacationing in Nigeria at the time she escaped her village. They are able to bargain for her survival, but at a cost to the couple, both physically and emotionally. Upon their return to the UK, their marriage is falling apart, and the horror of what they witnessed in Nigeria results in the husband's suicide. Little Bee is able to flee to the UK illegally, but is held in a detention center for two years. Upon her release, she contacts the only people she knows (the couple), and the sequence of events that follow are both dramatic and touching.

My brief synopsis is quite linear, but the story is written in flashbacks and from both the perspective of Little Bee and Sarah (the wife of the British couple). And it is very well written - the voices of both characters are genuine and unforced. The story itself has a very nice arc, with a build-up to finding out what the horrible event was that brought Little Bee and Sarah together on the beach in Nigeria, and how Little Bee was able to survive. We don't find out what happened after they parted or how Little Bee made it to the UK until late in the story, after we've already read about the emotional toll that the trauma on the beach took on Sarah and her husband.

In addition to the good writing, the story confronts the larger issues of environmental destruction and immigration, but not in an overwhelming or preachy way. It's the kind of story that would make a great movie. If you're looking for a quick summer read that isn't your typical novel, try this.


Friday, July 23, 2010

Review of the Time Traveler's Wife

I don't even know why I decided to read this book. A friend gave it to me as she was moving from Vancouver, and I knew enough from the movie previews to know that it wasn't going to be a great read. But I picked it up in March as we were in the midst of packing our old apartment and getting ready to move to our new one, and it was the perfect, mindless novel that I needed to keep me distracted from the stress of moving. But it wasn't very good.

The premise is that Henry DeTamble can travel through time, mostly backwards, but forwards too. It comes on suddenly, and he disappears from the present to appear naked in some other time. Where he'll land is purely up to chance, but he happens to land in the field next to Clare Abshire's house in Michigan quite frequently. He meets her when she is quite young, but has traveled from a different time, when they are married and have a family. All of this he has to keep from her until time catches up with them. Similarly, the first time Clare meets Henry (when he has time traveled and landed in her field) he is already in his 30s, therefore, when they meet in 'real time', and both of them are in their 20s, she knows exactly who he is, but he's never met her before. Confused? I was a little bit at times, but decided that it was too much effort to try and ensure that all of the time traveling stuff added up and made sense, so I just went with it.

The problem with this book was that even though it's a love story, and definitely has a twist (the time traveling), it wasn't all that interesting. There was nothing particularly gripping about the characters, and because you know something tragic has to happen in order for it to have an arc or climax, that was the only thing that kept me reading. But, it was an easy read, and fairly mindless, and therefore perfect for the stressful time of packing and moving.


Review of Kafka on the Shore

So this was a crazy book, but also really really great. I've been wanting to read Murakami for a long time, but was always a bit intimidated for some reason. Then last year my Dad asked me to buy him some books before going on a 3 week trip to Europe, so I picked this one for him. He couldn't stop talking about it upon his return, so I suggested it for my book club this past spring. Unfortunately, only three of us read it, so not everyone could participate in the conversation, and there was so much to talk about!

I'm not going to even try to recap the story because it's so full of wackiness, mystical realism, travel into other worlds and slugs falling from the sky that it would a) take too long and b) take away from the story if I tried to explain. And really, what I think this book was about was just the opposite of trying to tell a story in a linear fashion. It was about relationships, and forgiveness, and patience, and finding out who you are, and being ok with not knowing who you are, or where you come from. It was about accepting that we all have parts of ourselves that are good and that are evil, and that sometimes you have to just believe that the universe will lead you in the right direction, even if you don't know exactly where you're going. It was about accepting that sometimes you need to toss your maps and compasses and be willing to get lost in the woods, because you don't know what you will find - it may be scary, but chances are you will learn something from it. And it was about love and death, and how they both open up to new worlds, although they both can cause pain.

This is the kind of book that when you've read the last word on the last page you think, "What I really should do is get a cup of tea and start all over again, because there is likely to be so much that I missed the first time around."


Review of Jane Eyre

Jane Eyre was a book club pick way back in January, and the cold, rainy Vancouver weather provided the perfect backdrop for reading it. I actually read Jane Eyre in 9th grade, but remembered absolutely nothing about it except for the "big reveal" which I will not reveal here lest I spoil it for someone else. But there is so much more to the story than this climax, and as I read it for the second time (20 years later), I realized how much I had missed at 13.

Jane Eyre tells the story of...Jane Eyre, an orphan who is cruelly treated and unloved by a sadistic aunt and sent away to a school for girls which, although harsh and spartan, enables her to form friendships and relationships and grow into an educated woman. After teaching at the school for a few years, she takes a job as a governess at an estate of a single man, Mr. Rochester, and his ward, the young daughter of an old lover (but not his own child). Mysterious things happen in the house, which are ultimately explained by the "big reveal" I mention above, resulting in Jane leaving in a rush and setting out on her own with no money and nowhere to go. She finds herself in the company of generous strangers in a completely different part of the country, and amazing connections are revealed (but again, not by me here -- I don't want to ruin it).

Because I had already read the book and didn't recall liking it very much, I was pleasantly surprised by how easily I was engaged by the story and how easy it was to read. It had been a real slog when I was 13, and having read it again now I feel that I was just too young to really appreciate it the first time around. This is the kind of book where you have to have 'lived' a little to really appreciate it -- to have experienced challenges in life, heartbreak, conflicts. And although I'm sure that all 13 year-old's, if questioned, would say they have experienced all of those things, I'm going to be completely condescending and say that...well...they haven't.

My only criticism comes at the end of the story, where things just seem to fall into place a bit too conveniently. I didn't buy some of the major coincidences that enable Jane to come into family and fortune within the span of a few months. But overall, it was a very enjoyable book, and one that I will recommend to my daughter...when she is in her 20s, at least. :)


Review of Shadow Country

I've been remiss in writing my book reviews this year, and while I don't have a great excuse, I'm still going to use the fact that I've been plagued by morning sickness throughout my entire pregnancy as a semi-excuse. Feeling like barfing all the time just hasn't been conducive to writing. But I digress...I'm here now, on maternity leave, finally feeling better (at week 39), so it's now or never to catch up on my reviews before the baby arrives.

I started Shadow Country before U.S. Thanksgiving way back in 2009, but at 892 pages it took me until the end of January to finish. Shadow Country is actually three books combined into one. This was the Peter Matthiessen's original intent when he first wrote the novel, but was forced by his publisher to publish as three separate books. Now that he is an accomplished writer, he received his publisher's blessing to rework the three books into the one he had originally conceived, and it masterful.

The book is divided into three parts, all of which center around the notorious E.J. Watson. Watson was a sugar planter in the Florida Everglades at the turn of the 20th Century, and huge legends surrounded him from the time he moved there, thanks to his somewhat notorious past out west. He was rumored to have killed a prostitute, Belle Starr, in a fit of passion, which he always denied. But this led to several other rumors surrounding murdered acquaintances, most of which became attributed to Watson as his legend grew.

The first book opens with Watson's murder on the first page, so you know at the beginning that he his killed by a mob following a devastating hurricane in the Gulf Coast of Florida. But what you don't know is how it came to be, or why. The next 800 pages contain an incredible story that unravels the how and why, and by the end, you realize that there isn't a clear answer, and that everyone has their own interpretation or rationale or story to help explain.

The first book is told from the perspective of everyone in Watson's life but Watson himself, with alternating chapters and distinct voices and dialects (difficult to read at times). The second book is told from his son Lucious' perspective years after his father's death as he tries to piece together fact vs. fiction and what exactly happened on that fateful day after the hurricane. The final book is told by E.J. Watson himself, and we are let into the infamous man's mind and learn the "truth" about all of the stories and legends that surround him.

Shadow Country was not an easy read, but it was an immensely satisfying one, particularly because Matthiessen is a master at putting the reader smack into the middle of the scene. His descriptions of the Everglades at the turn of the last Century are incredible, and for the first time in my life I have a real interest in visiting that part of the country and exploring the area. If you're looking for an epic summer read, I highly recommend this book.