Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Catching up on my summer reading

I have read several books since The Human Stain, but none have compared to it so far...yet, I keep trying!

I have read four books lately:

Stoner by John Williams.  I did enjoy this book and I do recommend it.  At face value, it appears to be
a quite simple story:  boy (William Stoner) grew up poor living on a farm in Missouri in the late 1800's.  His teacher recommended that he go on to the university, so his parents managed to send him there to study agronomy.  However, as he began to take the various courses, he found that English literature was what he wanted to study.  Of course, that meant that he would not be returning to the farm to help his father which was a disappointment to his parents.  Then he married a city-bred girl from money, and began teaching at the university.  That further estranged him from his family.  Stoner and his wife had a difficult marriage, and his wife worked at separating Stoner from their only child, Grace.  Stoner's life was a lonely, isolated sad life.  Until he met Katherine.  Stoner then found what love was about, of course, at the price of the rest of his life.  And as the back of the book states:

"Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude."

Good story, good writing.  Side note: the book was written in 1965.

Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick.  I wasn't real taken with this novel, although I did
finish it, I guess, because I cared enough to find out how the story ended.  This is a story about Charlie Beale, who was a veteran of WWII and who showed up one day in the small town of Brownsburg, Virginia with a suitcase full of cash and a set of butcher knifes.  He went to Will, the local butcher, and convinced Will to give Charlie a try.  Charlie was a good butcher so he was given a job.  Meanwhile, Charlie bought property near the river where he was sleeping out of his truck.  As Charlie and the Will worked together, Charlie also became friends with Will's wife and five year old son, Sam.

Charlie seemed to be searching for a wonderful life.  He attended all of the churches, trying to find one that felt right for him.  He continued to buy up land. And then, he fell hard for the young, beautiful wife of one of the old, wealthy men in town.  Charlie and Sylvan began an extramarital affair.  Charlie bought Sylvan a house, and they would meet there to be alone.  Except that Charlies always took Sam everywhere he went, leaving the five year old boy confused and wondering what Charlie was doing.

The book ends tragically.

It is fairly well-written, but left some things unanswered that perhaps needed to be explained, like who was Charlie really?  Where did his money come from?  Etc.

Life After Life by Jill McCorkle.  This was one of my book groups choice for August.  It was an
amusing story, but didn't hold my interest real well.  It is a novel about a few residents of an independent living home, Pine Haven Retirement Center, in a small town in North Carolina, as they near the end of their lives.  Being who I am, I wanted to know much more about each person's story, so that was disappointing to me.  However, the author does a good job in such a short space of letting you know about each character.  I just wanted more!  Besides the residents of the facility, there are a couple of the staff that are also in the book.  Their lives intertwine with the residents in interesting ways, and serve to show the contrast of stages of life.

Perhaps, it is just me that didn't find the book that great...dealing with aging parents could do that!

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier.  I did enjoy this book quite a bit.  It was rather simple, yet there was a lot to it.

In 1850, Hannah Bright, a seamstress and Quaker from England, was struggling with the recent
break-up with her fiance who decided to marry someone else.  Hannah's sister, Grace, was scheduled to travel to America to marry Adam Cox, so Hannah decided to travel with Grace and start a new life for herself.  Sadly, Grace died on the ship they were traveling on, so Hannah arrived in America alone.  She made her way to Ohio where she would have to tell Adam the news that Grace had died.  When Hannah arrived in Faithwell, Ohio where Adam lived, she learned that Adam was living with his sister-in-law, who had been married to Adam's brother who had recently died.  Hannah moved into the house with them, until she met Jacob Haymaker, a local farmer, who wanted to marry her.  Hannah did not feel like she belonged anywhere and so agreed to marry Jacob.  That meant that Hannah had to move to the family home where Jacob's mother, Ruth, ruled. And Ruth did not care for Hannah, so that made life difficult as Hannah attempted to fit into the family.

Hannah had learned about the Underground Railway when she first arrived in Ohio, and she slowly became aware of activities that were going on.  As she began to notice travelers hiding, she began to help those traveling on their way to Canada ( or up north).  Her mother-in-law learned of Hannah's activities and forebade her to help anyone.

The story is about the struggle of speaking of one's beliefs, and actually living that belief.  It was quite a good story of the years before the Civil War, as slavery was pervasive in the South and the slaves were trying to escape.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Human Stain

The Human Stain by Phillip Roth is one of the best books that I have ever read.  That is really high
praise coming from me-I have read a lot of books. 

The opening line is perfect to lead into the story:

"It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk---who before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty---confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college."
 It turns out that this was not the first time that Coleman was involved in "scandulous behavior".  His retirement from Athena College came about when he was accused of racism after it became known that he had questioned in class one day "Do they exist or are they spooks?" about a couple of students who had never shown up for his class.  Unbeknownst to Coleman, the missing students were black.  Those who wanted to get rid of Coleman jumped on the wagon, and he was forced out. This part of the story seemed weak to me, but it was also quite meaningful as it turned out.

Following his retirement/forced resignation, Coleman's wife died (which he felt was caused by the charges of racism that were charged upon him and the subsequent ostracism of him by the college).  Thus as the opening line tells, Coleman began an affair with Faunia Farley, an illiterate, divorced woman, who had lost her two children in a fire.  She had been abused as a child and as a wife, so she came into the relationship with her own issues.

Coleman's neighbor, a writer named Nathan Zuckermann is the narrator of the story, beginning to end.  He came across Coleman life secret that Coleman had kept for over fifty years...kept from his wife and his four children, and all who knew him.  The secret that was Coleman's life.  The secret that he only told Faunia...and her reaction was a kind of "So?".  This secret that had become Coleman's identity, as it always had been from the start anyway.

I don't want to give away the secret.  But as it turns out, it's implications are stunning.

I read this book for one of my book groups.  We had a wonderful night of discussion!  There is just so much to this story.

Defending Jacob

I had been wanting to read Defending Jacob by William Landay for awhile, so I was glad that my book
group decided to chose it for our July read.  It is the story of a family torn apart as old truths and new accusations come to light.

The Barber family consisted of Andy, an Assistant District Attorney, Laurie, his artistic wife, and their fourteen year old son, Jacob.  One of Jacob's schoolmates, Ben,  was found brutally murdered in a city park and Andy was called to the scene.  Andy decided to lead the investigation into the stabbing and began to suspect a known pedophile who lived near the park.  However, soon some of Jacob's classmates began posting messages on Facebook about Jacob and his problems with Ben and it became known that Jacob had a "cool knife".  Police began to suspect Jacob of the murder.  Meanwhile, Andy found the knife that Jacob had and he disposed of it.  Because he thought Jacob was guilty, or because he didn't want the knife to hurt Jacob's case because he was innocent? 

Jacob's mother, Laurie, suspected that perhaps Jacob did commit the murder and, understandably, this caused a serious rift in Andy and Laurie's relationship.  That rift widened when Laurie learned that both Andy's father and his grandfather had been murderers and that his father was still in prison-facts that Andy had never shared with his family.

So, how far do you go to protect your children?  That's the gist of the book.  Very reminiscent for me of The Dinner, which I had read a couple of months ago.

The first half of the book went slowly for me, but picked up after that.  I was of the opinion that it was just a pretty good book.  Until the end.  The end pushed the book into the "very good" category for me!  A very unexpected ending!  Certainly a thought-provoking book!

And, by the way, lent itself to a good discussion for book group!