HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson: A Review

Walker Percy has described this strange 1980 publication of Robinson’s first novel as a “haunting dream of a story.” The characters are strange; the plot is strange; and the ending is strange, open to more than one interpretation. Even the characters are strange enough to wonder if they are sane or not. Ruth, the older of two sisters has never fit in, nor never wanted to. Her younger sister, Lucille is just the opposite, desiring to be popular and to lead a “normal” life. Eventually, the sisters come under the care of their mother’s sister, Sylvia Fisher, the strangest of characters I’ve ever read. She is described as “eccentric” and “remote,” a definite understatement.

Underlying the story is the river and the railroad that crossed the river once, sending a whole train and all its passengers into the glacial waters so deep no one ever found the train or any traces of it. The girls’ grandfather was killed in the accident. There are no chapters in this book, to speak of ; one section just flows into another, pulling the reader along as the river pulls along the things and people who fall into it. Thematically, the novel deals with the transience and impermanence of things and of life, The Great Depression, insanity, death, and suicide. In places it is depressing, but, throughout, it is beautifully written. There are even some spots of dark humor.

Years ago I had read and loved Gilead, Home, and Lila, Robinson’s outstanding trilogy, and came to her debut novel late, expecting something that was not present. The novel left me impressed with the writing, intrigued and a bit puzzled by the ending. I could not rate this novel if I wanted to and kept the copy I ordered rather than passing it along because I am sure I will, at some point, read it again.

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Second Chance Grill: A Review

I have often read cozy mysteries (where there is a murder, but there are no gory, graphic details or scenes, and the person killed is someone you “love to hate”), but I would describe Christine Nolfi’s 2012 novel, first book in the Liberty Series, as a “cozy romance.”

There are all the elements required for coziness: a handsome, rugged man who works with his hands, a mechanic named Anthony; a female protagonist, in this case Mary Chance, who is a doctor, but has inherited from her eccentric Aunt Meg a cafe and grill in a small town, Liberty, Ohio; a leukemia-striken kid, Blossom, Anthony’s daughter ;and the combination of these elements makes for a fine, inspiring novel.

The book begins with the disastrous opening day of the Second Chance Grill. (Get the connection? Mary Chance is the second “Chance”, after Meg, to run the grill.) Nothing goes right, and the cook nearly runs off the entire town. Mary really gets off on the wrong foot. Blossom decides from first sight that Mary is perfect for her widowed father’s second wife. What she doesn’t know is that Mary is only taking a break from doctoring to escape from the extreme grief she feels over the sudden death of her closest friend, and she intends to take over the deceased girl’s father’s practice just as soon as she meets her obligation to her aunt to get the grill up, running, and making a profit.

Of course, Blossom nearly dies, and the reader meets Anthony’s zany family who immediately agree with Blossom’s pick for her stepmother.  So many miscommunications and plot twists happen that the reader never loses interest or becomes bored. There are thirty-one short chapters that keep the reader swimming in cliffhangers.  It is the perfect escape read, something all of us need from time to time. The next book will be titled Treasure Me, which probably involves the many antiques that make up the decor of the grill.

BARKSKINS: A Review

The most impressive thing about this massive novel by Annie Proulx is its size–717 pages.  And, I’m so glad I tackled this big book because it is a book I will continuously look back on and never forget. Prior to reading Barkskins, Proulx’s The Shipping News, first the book, then the film, was one of my all-time favorites. This novel has been described as “…epic, dazzling, violent, magnificently dramatic…” and it delivers on all counts.

Barkskins narrates the story of two Frenchmen with nothing to their names and is set in Canada, then known as New France. We follow the Sel and Douquet families for several generations (the families’ charts at the end of the book will explain all the connections). Proulx is a wonderful storyteller, and the story she tells carries the reader along like the great rivers described in the story. Some parts are humorous, reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Roughing It. Her “enchanting descriptions” are poetic in themselves, and her characterization skills demonstrate that she understands the human heart. Characters’ motives are always clear, whether they be admirable or dastardly.

It took me months, picking up and putting down this volume for periods of time to finish, but I am so glad I did. This book is not for everyone, but for those who are willing to be swept along by magnificent  narrative and captivated by the history of the barkskins (wood cutters) and their descendants, the undertaking is worth it!

TUESDAY TEASER

The blogger at Purple Blogger hosts the meme Tuesday Teaser.  The idea is to take the book you are now reading and at random, copy a couple of sentences that might tempt another person to read the same book. I am still reading The Distant Hours by Kate Morton, and here is where I left off:

(1939) “Percy didn’t go home. Neither did she go on to the village hall to assist with the arrangement of corned beef tins. Saffy (her sister) would later accuse  her of forgetting to collect an evacuee on purpose, of never having wanted one in the first place; but although there was an element of truth in the latter accusation, Percy’s failure had nothing to do with Saffy and everything to do with Mrs. Pott’s gossip. Besides, as she always reminded her twin, everything had worked out in the end…”

Three old maids live in their author-father’s ancestral home, a literal castle, during WWII when London children were evacuated to the country towns to be saved from the bombings in London. Meredith, the evacuee who eventually ended up with the three women and their senile father, is involved in mysteries and family secrets that are not unravelled and revealed  until 1992 by Meredith’s daughter, Edie.  This generational tale of eerie settings, Mud Monsters rising from the old moat, young romance, friendships and betrayal is written in the most artful style imaginable.  Little clues, dropped here and there like breadcrumbs for the reader to follow make unraveling the quirks of the characters and the family secrets a pleasure.

Please look at what you’re currently reading and leave a teaser from it in the Comments box. Please remember to give title and author, and no spoilers, please.

Boy, Snow, Bird: A Review of a strange book

Helen Oyeyemi’s 2014 novel has been described as a “cautionary tale” that includes “post-race ideology, racial limbo, and the politics of passing.” (New York Times) The whole story takes on a magical, fairytale quality, but ends with a shocking revelation. It is divided into three parts: the story of Boy, the story of Snow, the story of Bird.

At the beginning we meet Boy, named so because her rat catcher father refused to care enough to think of a better name. Her mother is absent from her life. She is described as having a long, white-blonde braid and is extremely intelligent. Her life in East-side Manhattan sometime in the 1930’s is horrific and violent. Early on, she runs away and ends up at a young women’s boarding house. During her stay, she double dates with another young woman there and meets Arturo. Her first meetings and dates with him begins a love/hate relationship although she falls desperately under the spell of his lovely 6 year old daughter, Snow. When she meets Arturo’s mother, Olivia Whitman, yet another kind of relationship develops.

After Arturo and Boy’s daughter, a Negro, is born, Snow, Arturo’s daughter is exiled to live with an aunt to prevent competition and conflict between the two girls. (Part Two) As the story unfolds, one layer at a time, Bird, their daughter, seems to have a second sight about “things” and has an insatiable curiosity which strives to unlock family mysteries. Over time, the two girls exchange letters. (Part Three) At the end, all family secrets are revealed sending the characters’ emotions and lives topsy turvy.

The book has a strangeness about it, from its original setting to its unsettling conclusion, and many assumptions and conclusions the reader has made along the way are turned upside down.

This is a satisfying read, not necessarily a book you will like or even one you can understand upon a first reading, but it has literary value, and I definitely will read other books by this author.

“Check Off ‘B’: The Beekeeper’s Daughter: A Review

In my Alphabet Challenge, which thankfully has no time limits or goals on it, I have read the book for the letter ‘B’.  Santa Montefiore’s The Beekeeper’s Daughter was a book due at the public library which I finished up (just in time) and counted as part of the challenge. An experienced writer, Montefiore presents a story of two romances (mother’s and daughter’s ) that span the settings of England during WWII and 1973 New England.

Grace Hamblin is the beekeeper’s daughter, living in England and who experiences a love that can never be fulfilled. Trixie, her daughter falls in love with Jasper, a singer in a band “on the brink of stardom.” He is part of the British Music Invasion of the seventies. Trixie’s story and Grace’s story (the latter told in flashbacks) have more in common than either could suspect. Both are searching for “lost love.”  “To find  what they are longing for, they must confront the past, unravel the lies told long ago, and open their hearts to each other.”

This novel is a very good read, engaging with many twist and turns, and good old-fashioned “escapism.”

TWO RECENT READS–Morningstar:Growing up With Books and Playing with Fire: REVIEWS

The following two books were ones I read purely for escape while waiting for my delayed-by-ice semester to start:

First, Morningstar:Growing Up with Books a 2017 publication by Ann Hood, was a slim volume which needs to be read with one’s TBR list close by. The book might be described as a memoir organized by what the author was reading at various stages of her life. I had read her earlier novel, The Book That Matters Most, and thoroughly enjoyed it, sharing it with friends at my book club, so when I saw it displayed at the library, I checked it out. Hood grew up in a household that “didn’t foster a love of literature but discovered literature anyway. Sometimes lonely as a child she experienced “the companionship of books.” She read eclectically, pouring equally over classics, bestsellers, and books that were “not so nice,” her mother’s description. Because it was so short, it was a quick read and a unique one. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves books and is interested in other people who love them too.

Tess Gerritsen’s 2015 novel is one I found at Half Price Books.  As a fan of the TNT series, Rissoli and Isles, selecting Playing with Fire, was a no-brainer.  The cover alone was enough to capture my interest. Gerritsen employs great skills of characterization, and her plots and sub-plots combine psychological thriller appeal as well as mystery, action, and plenty of twists and turns. Beginning in the US and continuing in Venice, Julia, the protagonist, is soon caught up in espionage and violence, something she never dreamed a concert violinist would experience.  The intertwining stories of the modern-day professional violinist and the Jewish holocaust-era composer provide good reading and good mystery.