Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

An extraordinary book about the dust storms on the High Plains in the 1930s. This book takes us into the lives of several people who made up the "nesters" - farmers, along with cowboys, ranchers, doctors, teachers, and newspapermen. We follow the history of the plains from the early twenties, when land was free or cheap and hopes were high, when government policy fed the ambitions of the settlers, on into the 1930s and the worst of the storms.

It is clear from our present perspective that the horrors of the "dust bowl" were man-made. It took a few years and some gutsy thinking people to get that message out during the worst of it and to start the process that would lead to some recovery. Not that these plains have ever fully recovered.

Of particular interest are the extraordinary details. What the storms did to people, animals, buildings, and what happened on the rare occasions when it actually rained. While in the air (which was most of the time) the dust created such static electricity that people were afraid to touch each other. The touch could knock them across a room. The electricity shorted out engines and started fires. The dust destroyed just about everything it touched, killing the natural animal and plant population while bringing in insects that thrived on what was left. Millions of acres of land were left sterile, while the swarms of dust moved into the cities, over other parts of the country, and into the ocean. The storms even reached New York City and Washington, D.C. on occasion.

How the government responded is another fascinating tale, featuring a president who couldn't think of anything to do - Hoover - followed by one who did everything possible - Roosevelt. It's possible that the biggest hero of the time was the person who took on a new governmental position under Roosevelt, Hugh Bennett, and came up with ways to hold the soil down. He didn't stop there, of course. He took his mission to the loners who made up the plains settlers and convinced them that they had to work together to fight this thing.

The story is devastating and often heart-breaking. And so very readable.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Woman in Jerusalem - A.B. Yehoshua

Title: A Woman in Jerusalem
Author: A.B. Yehoshua; translated from the Hebrew by Hillel Halkin
Country: Israel
Year: 2004
Rating: A
Pages: 237 pgs.

First sentence: Even though the manager of the human resources division had not sought such a mission, now, in the softly radiant morning, he grasped its unexpected significance.

There was a lot of hope for the future of the Middle East when the Oslo accords were first signed. However, as many of you probably know, with both sides disappointed in the implementation of the accords, the fall of the Oslo peace process in September 2000 was marked by the start of the second Intifada, the second wave of violence between Palestinians and Israelis since 1967. The violence did not begin to abate until the death of Yasser Arafat at the end of 2004, and the relative success of the Sharm el-Sheikh peace summit in February 2005. Marked by Palestinian suicide bombings in Jerusalem and other cities, and Israeli military excursions into West Bank, Gaza, and other Palestinian settlements, more than 4,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis were killed in a seven year period.

A Woman in Jerusalem, a novel by A.B. Yehoshua, takes place in Jerusalem around 2002. An immigrant woman is killed by a suicide bombing at her local market. Her body lies unidentified for a week, the only clue to her identity a bloody pay stub from a local bakery. After a tabloid newspaper article is written about the bakery's callousness towards her death, the human resource manager is sent on a mission to identify the woman and return her body to her family.

The only character that receives a name in the story Yulia Ragayev, the cleaning woman from the bakery who was killed. All other characacters are referred to by their positions: human resources manager, owner, office manager, consul, ex-husband, young son. It is a technique that works extremely well for the style of the novel. I especially liked the italicized inserts of the thoughts of random bystanders to the story line: the bakery's shift workers, Yulia's neighbor's, her mother's fellow villagers.

The story line certainly sounds dreary and depressing, but it is ultimately a story of hope and humor. The final scenes may not appeal to many readers, but I felt they were perfectly appropriate to the characters Yehoshua created. This is the first of his novels I have read, it will certainly not be the last.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Dream Life of Sukhanov, by Olga Grushin

The Dream Life of Sukhanov is a rare, beautifully-written book that explores a fundamental theme: where the choices we make in our lives take us.

Sukhanov, a 56-year-old art critic in Moscow in the mid-1980s, who long ago "sold out" to have a financially comfortable life in a country that does not respect true art, finds that his walled-off past is starting to invade the present. Little by little, triggered by incidents in the present day, he faces the choices he has made over the years. The wall does not come tumbling down neatly, brick by brick, but rather like it has sprung occasional leaks. Sukhanov races to repair the damage again and again, reasserting his stuffy, arrogant self each time.

The attacks from his past come in the form of dreams, both while he sleeps and when he is awake, and without warning. The drifting into dreams become more frequent, and eventually we begin to enter Sukhanov's mind ourselves, as the third-person narrative increasingly slides into the first.

While the dreams threaten to take over, the present does not stop trotting along, plunging Sukhanov into a world he had for so long tried to avoid. Assailed from the present as well as the past, Sukhanov eventually finds escape.

In addition to exploring Sukhanov's personal demons, Grushin brings us into the world of art, particularly surrealist and impressionist art. As other reviewers have noted, the writing itself is often impressionistic and nearly surreal. Just as the great impressionist painters were able to bring their visions to a diverse audience, so is Grushin able to paint so that we understand, and at the same time we sometimes gasp with wonder.

Friday, September 14, 2007

After This - kookiejar's review

This book truly was a 'challenge'. It was a challenge to stay awake long enough to finish it.

I know I shouldn't say things like that, but it's the truth.

Here we follow the courtship and then marriage of John and Mary Keane. They end up having four children and we see little vingettes of their lives as they move through the landscape of 50's and 60's America.

The children grow and struggle as we all do and people will continue to do until we are extinct. Therefore, what is the new ground being broken here? None.

What is gripping or interesting or thought provoking about this novel? Nothing.

Someone else, with a different perspective needs to read this and tell me I'm wrong, but until then I'm giving this book 4 yawns.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Interview with Mark Z. Danielewski

Metromix has posted this interview with Mark Z. Danielewski. In part, the interview explores his unusual way of relating the story:

Sam and Hailey, two teenage lovers, race through history and across America, while their distinct voices gather in a geographic fashion on different parts of the book’s pages, forcing the reader to turn the book, quite literally, upside-down and sideways to keep up. What to make of it? We spoke with Danielewski—who reads at Skylight Books on Thursday—during a recent sweltering afternoon in Los Angeles.

You’ve spoken about the “wonderful analogue qualities of paper, especially paper that is bound together in book form.”
Definitely. A book, I maintain, is still the most efficacious way of communicating and translating information. There’s an enormous amount of information available from a book. Images provide a certain type of information, but it tends to be just static information. You can see what Iraq looks like to no end in sight, but when you’re reading a book on the Iraq war, you’re getting a far denser amount of information.

There is some interesting stuff on Only Revolutions.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Echo Maker - Wendy's Review

All the humans revered Crane, the great orator. Where cranes gathered, their speech carried miles. The Aztecs called themselves the Crane People. One of the Anishinaabe clans was named the Cranes - Ajijak or Businassee - the Echo Makers. The Cranes were leaders, voices that called all people together. Crow and Cheyenne carved cranes' leg bones into hollow flutes, echoing the echo maker. -From The Echo Maker, page 181-

Richard Power's novel - The Echo Maker - is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and winner of the National Book Award. Beneath a simple story lies complex questions about self and memory. How does memory define who we are? Is our sense of self and the larger world just a series of synapses and neurons firing or is it something bigger?

The novel begins with a horrific car accident along the Platte River during the annual crane migration. Mark Schulter survives the crash, but is left with a rare and devastating brain injury called Capgras Syndrome. Believing his sister, Karin, is really an imposter who is pretending to be his sister, Mark's recovery from his injuries takes the reader along a winding path of self-discovery, misidentification, conspiracies, and the complex and sometimes fragile nature of relationships. Powers constructs the novel around four major characters: Mark Schulter, his sister Karin, a renowned scientist named Gerald Weber, and Barbara Gillespie - a nursing home aide who is surrounded by mystery. It is not only Mark who struggles with his identity. Karin, a woman who has tried unsuccessfully to shed her past, finds herself searching to re-define it.

When Mark was himself again, she would restart them both. She'd get him on his feet, listen to him, help him find what he need to be. And this time she'd take him away with her, someplace reasonable. -From The Echo Maker, page 26-

Making herself over, personality du jour. Imagination, even memory, all too ready to accommodate her, whoever her is. Anything for a scratch behind the ears. Scratch from anyone. She is nothing. No one. Worse than no one. Blank at the core. She must change her life. From the mess of her fouled nest, salvage something. Anything. -From The Echo Maker, page 407-

Gerald Weber is shocked to discover that perhaps he is only defined by the way others perceive him - that perhaps his life's work is no more than a critics review: He'd let his critics convince him. Something had eroded, the core pleasure in his accomplishment. - From The Echo Maker, page 315-

This novel is meant to be read slowly - it is a thoughtful novel, and one that is challenging on an intellectual level. Powers deftly constructs a story which questions the very core of who we are and how self is defined - a fascinating treatise about what makes us human. The backdrop of Nebraska and its incredible crane migration - an astounding feat of migratory memory and ritual - is a fitting symbol of the novel's thematic content. With a surprising twist at the end, the novel is ultimately a satisfying read.

Recommended; Rated 4.5/5; read my original review here.

Wendy's Preliminary List

Books completed are highlighted in red. This is my preliminary list (subject to change of course!):

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Completed January 7, 2007. Rated 5/5)
Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky (Completed February 17, 2007. Rated 5/5)
The Translator, by Leila Aboulela (Completed March 23, 2007. Rated 4.5/5)
Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski (DNF - horrible book)
The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai (Completed March 16, 2007. Rated 4.25/5)
Old Filth, by Jane Gardam (Completed May 29, 2007. Rated 3.75/5)
Beasts of No Nation, by Uzodinma Iweala (Completed March 5, 2007. Rated 3.75/5)
All Aunt Hagar's Children, by Edward P. Jones
Gate of the Sun, by Elias Khoury
Lisey's Story, by Stephen King
The Inhabited World, by David Long
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (Completed May 17, 2007. Rated 5/5)
The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud (Completed December 12, 2007. Rated 4/5)
Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell (Completed March 26, 2007. Rated 5/5)
Eat the Document, by Dana Spiotta (Completed May 22, 2007. Rated 3.5/5)
Digging to America, by Anne Tyler
A Woman in Jerusalem, by A.B. Yehoshua
Alentjo Blue, by Monica Ali (Completed February 22, 2008. Rated 4.5/5)
One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson
The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers (Completed September 6, 2007. Rated 4.5/5)
Arthur and George, by Julian Barnes (Completed April 30, 2007. Rated 4/5)

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Amy's Progress

I didn't manage to get any books read for this challenge in August. However, I have two sitting here that I hope to get to in September:

The Omnivore's Dilemma - Pollan
Half of a Yellow Sun - Adichie

I have completed:

The Ghost Map- Johnson
The Keep - Egan
The Inhabited World - Long
The Road - McCarthy

Hope to read yet this year:

The Translator - Aboulela
Black Swan Green - Mitchell
A Woman in Jerusalem - Yehoshua
The Inheritance of Loss - Desai
Suite Francaise - Nemirovsky
Alentejo Blue - Ali

As you can see, I am hopelessly behind but I will keep plugging along.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Laura's Review: The Road

The Road
Cormac MacCarthy
241 pages

First sentence: When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.

Reflections: A man and his son set out on a journey across a country which has been destroyed in some kind of apocalyptic event. This event apparently took place several years ago, but everything is still covered in ash. No life remains in the towns, and there are usually signs of a hasty departure, of townspeople fleeing to safety. Very few were spared; bodies appear in buidings, and even in the middle of the road. It is not clear how or why the man and boy survived up to this point. Now they are on their way south, hopeful of finding a better place.

Survival skills are paramount. Bands of robbers roam the land, looting and killing. Survivors often resort to cannibalism. The contents of homes and stores have usually been ransacked by travellers and bandits. Yet the man and boy explore every building they come across. Occasionally they find something: blankets, clothes, or food. At the same time, MacCarthy's describes in great detail these once-fashionable houses, in a way that made me question why we place so much importance on our homes and other material possessions.

The man's deep love for the boy permeates every sentence in this book. The emotional intensity is evident both in their will to live and in the ways they care for one another. MacCarthy manages to convey this deep feeling through the most basic dialogue, as in this example when they have just come across a bountiful store of food:

Go ahead, he said. Don't let it get cold.
What do I eat first?
Whatever you like.
Is this coffee?
Yes. Here. You put the butter on your biscuits. Like this.
Do you think we should thank the people?
The people?
The people who gave us all this.
Well. Yes, I guess we could do that.

The most haunting aspect of this book was the boy's mother's death. She apparently committed suicide when it became evident the world as she knew it would be destroyed. She preferred to end her life; the man chose to remain with his son and try to survive. When considering what path I would choose, I realized how difficult this decision could be. There really is no correct answer.

This is a beautifully-written book that will remain with me for a very long time. ( )
Original review can be found here.