Posted in Book Reviews

Marie’s Reading: “When the English Fall” by David Williams

when the english fallIn When the English Fall, the world is devastated by a natural disaster, and the Amish community in Pennsylvania deals with the aftermath.  An Amish man named Jacob describes the events in his diary.

Since the Amish live largely outside our society, Jacob’s story becomes one of a struggle with faith.  The downfall of “English” society is a test for Jacob and his community, but not in the same way it is for everyone else.  The English themselves are his test.  How can he deny neighbors in need, even at the expense of his family?  Even though these neighbors are not part of the community?  And especially when these neighbors are violent and desperate?

This set-up provides the other side of the coin in those apocalypse stories where the suburban or urban heroes venture out into the country for safety or supplies.  People like Jacob’s family live there in the country.  Jacob comes across as a kind, hardworking, and generous man, possessed of a strong faith.  When you start to realize the way the story might end, it’s hard to read.

The ending is open, but I found it hopeful.  At least, the characters go into the ending with hope and faith, even though they might be walking into something terrible.

This is a thoughtful, somber book, with a great narrator and a unique, original perspective.

–Marie

 

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Posted in Book Reviews

Marie’s Reading: “Quartet in Autumn” by Barbara Pym

quartet in autumnLetty, Marcia, Edwin, and Norman are low-level clerks who share an office in a very drab London in the 1970’s.  They’re all retirement-age, all very private, and all lonely and a bit strange.  The story follows the four of them through scenes of their lives outside of the office, and then, in the end, a move toward perhaps becoming more than simply workmates.

Pym’s satire is the gentle kind, rather than the acid kind–there are pointed barbs about the way the lonely elderly are treated by society, and about how the England of the 1970’s seemed like an alien place to those “born in Malvern in 1914 of middle-class English parents.”  Yet there’s real affection for these people, no matter their quirks or problems.  Pym writes with a lot of compassion.

Letty, the one from Malvern, is a tidy woman intent on education.  Edwin loves church to the point of obsession (he reads all sorts of newsletters and goes to everyone’s services).  Norman has lots of lofty plans which never quite materialize, as he finds himself keeping company with a brother-in-law he doesn’t like.  The only really sad, tragic member of the quartet is Marcia–she quietly goes around the bend after a mastectomy.

The pace is brisk, and goes from scene to scene, character to character.  It’s a very character-centered story, the focus always on these rather downtrodden office mates.  But it’s not a sad book–none of the four are really sad.  They’ve carved out their own happiness and their own little victories out of what their world has given them.  And the story ends on a very hopeful note.

Give this one a try if you’re after a gentle read that’s still smart and pointed, and is populated with affectionately rendered, interesting (if a touch eccentric) characters.

–Marie

Posted in Book Reviews

Marie’s Reading: “What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food That Tells Their Stories” by Laura Shapiro

what she ateIn What She Ate, Laura Shapiro offers up capsule biographies of six very different women, examining them through the lens of food–how they ate, who they cooked for, their preferences and tastes.  Shapiro’s thesis is that one’s eating habits can be revealing of character, and that’s exactly how she approaches each subject.

As far as Shapiro is concerned, “Food constitutes a natural vantage point on the history of the personal….we have a relationship with food that’s launched when we’re born and lasts until we die.”  Whether you’re an obsessive dieter like Helen Gurney Brown or you use food for fuel like Eleanor Roosevelt, or you enjoy a good gooseberry tart like Dorothy Wordsworth, how you eat and what you eat says a lot about you and how you navigate the world.  It’s a very focused examination, and illuminates a lot of hidden corners in these women’s lives.

Those lives are various: Dorothy Wordsworth, Rosa Lewis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eva Braun, Barbara Pym and Helen Gurney Brown.  I admit I went into this book not knowing much about any of them, so I am extra happy that Shapiro included a bibliography, because each micro-biography left me curious and wanting to know more!

If you’re in the mood for biography through a very narrow, focused lens (and you love food!) do give this a try!

–Marie

Posted in Book Reviews

Marie’s Reading: “The Various Haunts of Men” by Susan Hill

various hauntsThe first in the Simon Serrailler trilogy, The Various Haunts of Men is about mysterious disappearances on a still more mysterious hill in a small English town.

There’s very little Simon Serrailler for a Simon Serrailler book, but that’s okay–the rest of the cast is dynamic, involving, and interesting.  Freya Graffam, a detective who’s just transferred to the town of Lafferton from London, is a smart and dedicated cop and a wonderful investigator to follow.  You don’t even really miss Serrailler, even though you get intriguing glimpses of him (mostly through a love-struck Freya).

Hill’s writing is elegant.  It’s like watching a very high-brow police procedural.  Dark yet still compelling and appealing, with a building tension.  The narrative switches a lot between characters, giving a sense of the scope of the town and its people, as well as their connections.  It’s a nice mix of small-village story and crime.

One of the many POV’s in the book is a tape being narrated by the killer, and it’s very chilling and crazy.  The killer’s sections make a nice counterpoint to Graffam’s hunt.  And I have to give props to the one of the best killer motivations I’ve seen in a while, and very well-done reveal.  A real sucker-punch dark ending, too.

An engaging and intricately constructed bit of crime fiction, and a promising start to a series.  I’ll look forward to reading others, to see how Serrailler and his town are fleshed out.

If you’re a British mystery fan, and you like P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Kate Atkinson, and/or Elly Griffiths, you might want to give this a try!

–Marie

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Marie’s Reading: “My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues” by Pamela Paul

my life with bobReading books about reading books always makes me want to read more books.

Like Paul, I keep a journal of the books I’ve read.  I use it to record first impressions, jot down personal reactions, and sometimes the titles of similar books, or names of similar authors.  Often these entries are the foundation for my blog posts here at the Readers’ Corner.  I’ve kept such a journal since just after high school, when a friend gave me a little reading journal for my birthday.

So, in short, Pamela Paul and I have a bit in common.  The “Bob” of the title is Paul’s “Book of Books,” a notebook she’s kept for years where she writes down the titles of every book that she’s read.  She uses Bob as a starting point to discuss her childhood as a bookish kid, her college years, her travels, and then her work and relationships, all tracked with the books she was reading at the time.

My Life with Bob is a love letter to the reading life, an examination of the intimate relationship between book and reader.  It’s a bookish coming-of-age, with so many great quotes about the power of reading and stories (I keep a commonplace book as well as reading journals, and I wrote down several passages from this book).

Those who identify as “book people” will find a kindred spirit in Paul.  Or at least I did.  I had that extremely common reading experience where, at times, I was convinced that Paul was writing just for me, sharing my exact experiences, in essence if not particulars.  Her tone is confessional and friendly, a fellow reader sharing her insights and anecdotes and favorites with you.

If you enjoy Michael Dirda’s work, or just enjoy books about the reading life, definitely give this a look!

–Marie

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Marie’s Reading: “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” by Hannah Tinti

twelve livesLoo and her dad have lived an unsettled life.  Always moving from place to place.  Loo’s dad, Hawley, has a mysterious past, represented by twelve different scars all over his body–all from bullets.  At last, when Loo is a teenager, she and her father settle in Loo’s late mother’s hometown in Massachusetts.  It’s not an easy adjustment, however–Loo has a lot to learn about navigating the world, and she also has to confront the not-so-warm welcome she and her father get in Olympus.

The story goes back and forth in time.  One part of the book focuses on Loo trying to get her footing in her new town, and her attempts to uncover her family’s secrets.  The novel also explores her father’s criminal past, one chapter for each bullet he took.  Tinti structures the novel very well.  The past sections are interspersed at precise moments in the story to either illuminate or to underscore what’s happening in the present.  And when the past finally catches up toward the novel’s climax, the storylines merge.

I really enjoyed Loo as a character.  She’s tough and maladjusted, as you’d expect.  Yet her relationship with her father is the absolute center of her universe, for good and bad.  The revelation of his past misdeeds seems to come as no surprise to her, and certainly doesn’t shock her.  Instead, there’s the sense that there’s a new depth and understanding between them.  As the story unfolds you realize that Loo and her dad are deeply flawed and not entirely sympathetic–but at least they’re deeply flawed together.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is a great mix of coming of age tale, crime story, and exploration of a father/daughter relationship.  Tinti’s style is very descriptive, and she puts together scenes for maximum effect–whether it’s thrilling, frightening, or, sometimes, sweet.  The sense of place is amazing, whether describing a shootout at a hotel or the woods of New England.  If you like gritty books where characters aren’t always good but have their own brand of morality, you might enjoy this one.  Fans of Donald Ray Pollock should take a look, too!

–Marie

Posted in Book Reviews

Marie’s Reading: “New Boy” by Tracy Chevalier

new boyNew Boy: Or, Much Ado About a Pencil Case.

I kid.  Kind of.

New Boy is Chevalier’s entry in the Hogarth Shakespeare Project. Hogarth has commissioned novelists to retell selected works of Shakespeare.   This is a retelling of the story of Othello, and while knowing that adds a fun layer to the story, you can also enjoy it all on its own, on its own merits.

Here’s the set-up: Osei, a diplomat’s son from Ghana, relocates to Washington D.C. in the early 1970’s. He makes an immediate connection with Dee, a white girl from a strict household.  Ian, the class bully, takes immediate offense at this newcomer for a lot of different reasons, and decides he’s going to bring him down.  Mimi, Ian’s girlfriend and Dee’s friend, finds herself in the middle as an unknowing pawn in Ian’s scheme.

The action takes place over the course of one school day, from playground to lunchroom and back.  The stakes seem a lot higher when all of the events play out over a single day.  It’s also a nice choice given the age of the characters–for a sixth-grader, school is your life, and the schooldays really are packed with drama.

I love how immediately engaging the writing is.  There’s a simple clarity to the prose, one that allows the characters to shine.  It’s also nice that the adults are all on the periphery, so that the young characters can exist on their own terms, with their own concerns and issues.

This isn’t just a retelling of Othello.  It’s also a commentary on the themes of the story.  Here, the racial climate of 1970’s America hits home for a reader in a way that a Moorish Venetian general in Cyprus might not.  And since the characters are pre-teens, the raw emotions and overreactions play a lot better than they might otherwise.  It’s awfully hard to map such a tragedy onto a bunch of kids, and some moments work better than others, but it’s still a good effort. The ending, though different, offers a suitable shock and a feeling of nothing really being resolved.

Chevalier has interpreted the characters in her own believable way.  Their motivations and desires all ring true, both in the context of this new story and as interpretations of the characters presented in Shakespeare.  Definitely worth a look!

–Marie