Monday, November 25, 2013

The Burgess Boys

Did you love Olive Kitteridge?  Well, the author, Elizabeth Strout, has a new book out...The Burgess

It's another book that I will reread at some point...When Jim and Bob Burgess were young boys a freak accident killed their father and the cause of his death haunted them both all of their lives.  Both boys left their home in Maine after finishing school and moved to New York.  Jim became a very successful, nationally known lawyer.  His younger brother, Bob, worked for Legal Aid as an attorney.  Their sister, Susan, remained in Maine where she married and divorced and was raising her son, Zach.

One day, Susan called her brothers to ask for their help...her son Zach was in serious legal trouble.  Both of the brothers returned to Maine to help...and the family dynamics began to show themselves.  Old hurts, misunderstandings, and secrets unfold.

The novel is a fascinating look at families, grief, guilt, loss and love.  The Burgess Boys is another great hit for Ms. Strout.


Margot and Disgrace-Two books

In trying to catch up on my blogging (as usual) I am writing about two books in this blog.  Both were read for my November book group meetings.

Margot by Jillian Cantor sounded so intriguing that all of the book group was excited to read it. 
Turned out to be somewhat of a let down.  The premise of the book is fascinating, but the writing left much to be desired.  And I hated the very predictable ending.

Anyway, the book is based on the premise that Ann Frank's older sister, Margot, had survived the war and was living in Philadelphia as Margie Franklin, hiding her identity.  She worked for a law firm and led a quiet, unassuming life.  As the film The Diary of Ann Frank came out (1959), Margot began questioning her life, past and present.

Sounds good, right?  I really struggled with the writing...I just didn't like it.  While at book group, I looked the author up online and learned that she has written several young adult books.  Aha!  That is what the writing reminded me of.  If the novel had been presented as a young adult book, it would make sense that it was written more simply and ended so predictably.  But that is not how the novel has been presented.

So fair warning...if you find the premise interesting and want to read the book...think of it as a young adult novel.  It will make much more sense to you.  

The other book that I read for November book group was Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee.  I had not read The Human Stain in the past few months and loved it so much, that this book just didn't compare to it for me.  However, the themes were similar.
anything by this author, although he has been a prize winning author in the past.  I will admit that he is a very good writer, but I didn't enjoy this novel.  Some of that may have been because I had read

David Lurie was a fifty-two year old divorced professor at a university in South Africa.  He seemed to have no positive regard for women and when he became involved with one of his students he was dismissed from the university. Upon his dismissal, he decided to go visit his daughter Lucy who worked a small farm.  David and Lucy clearly had a distant relationship.  One day three men came to Lucy's farm and an afternoon of violence ensued.  David attempted to become closer to Lucy but he seemed clueless on how to do that.

I know that this is not a very clear review of the novel, but I just didn't find it that good.  It did make for an interesting discussion at book group, with the women finding David utterly unlikeable and the men finding some redeemable qualities.

The Good Lord Bird

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride won the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction recently.  I have had it sitting on my pile of books to review for awhile.  I read The Good Lord Bird about a month or so ago.  As soon as I had read the previews of it, I knew I wanted to read it, so as soon as it came out I was at the bookstore.  I have been a fan of James McBride's work for several years and I love reading about the Civil War era, so this was right up there in interest for me.

This novel is about John Brown and the abolitionists and their activities leading into the Civil War.  It is narrated by Henry Shackleford.  Henry was a young slave boy in Kansas in 1856, when John Brown and his boys came to the area.   When John Brown and Henry's owner got into an argument, Henry was taken by John Brown.  John Brown thought that Henry was a girl, and began calling him "Onion".

Great opening lines:

"I was born a colored man and don't you forget it.  But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years."
Beginning in the first chapter Henry describes his father and the writing is just superb. His father was a barber and a preacher and quite an eccentric fellow.  Henry's mother had died in childbirth when Henry was born.  In the first chapter of the book, the reader is introduced to Henry and his father, and to John Brown.  I was hooked right then.

The book is about the exploits of John Brown leading up to his raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859.  All told from the young Onion's point of view.  Very interesting....certainly made me curious to learn more about John Brown...was he as crazy as the book makes me sound?

One of the passages I really loved was this:

"We spent them hours reading the Bible together in the dusk and discussing its passages.  I come to enjoy them talks, for even though I'd gotten used to living a lie-being a girl-it come to me this way: Being a Negro's a lie, anyway.  Nobody sees the real you.  Nobody knows who you are inside.  You just judged on what you are on the outside whatever your color.  Mulatto, colored, black, it don't matter.  You just a Negro to the world.  But somehow, setting on the bench of that porch, conversating with her, watching the sun go down over the mountains above the Ferry, made me forget 'bout what was covering me and the fact that the Old Man was aiming to get us all minced to pieces.  I come to the understanding that maybe what was on the inside was more important, and that your outer covering didn't count so much as folks thought it did, colored or white, man or woman."

Like I said...great writing.  Clearly a book that I will reread at some point. And very deserving of the National Book Award!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

House of Sand and Fog

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III was published in 1999 and was a Finalist for the National
Book Award for Fiction in the same year.  It was also an Oprah's Book Club pick.  Those alone are interesting enough for me to be surprised that I had never picked it up to read until last month, when it was the October read for one of my book groups.

Probably the most interesting thing to me about the book is how none of the characters were especially likable.  It was easy to feel sorry for them, but not enough to really are about them.

One of the three main characters was Colonel Behrani, who had been a wealthy officer in Iran until he and his family left there to come to the United States.  In the United States he struggled to make a living for his family and  the family found it difficult to cope with their new status as struggling emigrants.  Colonel Behrani worked hard and planned hard, determined to raise his family to the lifestyle they had been accustomed to in Iran.  When he came across a foreclosed home, he saw an opportunity to remodel the home and sell it for a profit, and possibly begin a new life.

The house had belonged to Kathy Nicolo, a divorcee who was struggling herself in many different ways (emotionally, financially, etc.).  One day, seemingly out of the blue, she was handed a court order stating that her house was going up for auction the next day, and she needed to move out immediately.  The court order stated that she and her husband had operated a business out of the home and they owed a business tax. It was a mistake, but she had not been able to correct it apparently.

 "I was picturing all the county tax mail I'd been throwing away unopened since last winter..."
Deputy Sheriff Lester Burdon was one of the police officers who had come with the court order.  Lester was a married man, who became interested in and then in love with Kathy.  He took it upon himself to help her in the battle to win her home back.

Meanwhile, Kathy had to move out, and Colonel Behrani and his family moved into the house.  The Behrani's began making improvements to the house.

And so the story begins...These three characters lead the story to a tragic ending for all.  It is a story about obsessions...Kathy's for her home, Lester for Kathy, and Colonel Behrani for a better life. 

Interestingly, reviews say it is a book "combining unadorned realism with profound empathy."  I don't see either realism or profound empathy.  I really didn't feel any empathy for any of them.  I felt sorry for them and the way their different obsessions destroyed not only their lives, but the lives of others.

Do I recommend the book?  Not really.  I just didn't related at all to any of the characters.  But perhaps another reader will.  It obviously was a popular book, so I may just be jaded!