Review: Fault Lines, by Nancy Huston

This multi-generational family saga explores the impact of World War II and Nazi Germany, from some very unusual angles.  It’s told through the eyes of four 6-year-olds, each from a different generation.  The reader meets each generation through Sol, a precocious boy living in California in 2004.  His father Randall works as a computer programmer, and circumstances have recently forced him to take a job with higher pay but a much longer commute.  Randall has a distant relationship with his mother, Sadie, and is closer to his grandmother, Erra, a professional singer known as Kristina in her youth.  Sol’s section of the novel ends as the entire family arrives in Germany to visit Erra’s dying sister.

From there, author Nancy Huston takes us back to 1945 one generation at a time, from Randall to Sadie to Kristina (all age 6).  She peels the onion of family relationships and secrets to show how they came to North America, and the physical and emotional toll wrought by the Nazi regime.  I can’t say much without spoilers, but their story was not at all what I expected.  Judaism and Nazi atrocities played a part, but in unusual ways.  And both the family tree and the inter-generational relationships were much more intricate than they first appeared.

I found Erra/Kristina the most interesting character, perhaps because she appeared in each generation’s story.  She arrived on the scene first as a staunchly independent elderly woman who dearly loves her great-grandson, and is appalled at some of his parents’ philosophies.  She despairs over their plans to surgically remove a birthmark.  Her fears seem irrational, but by the time Kristina appeared as a child, I understood the birthmark’s significance and her modern-day reaction was completely understandable.  Fault Lines was filled with revelations like this, that really drove home the importance of understanding the societal and familial forces that shape each generation.  This was a well-written, enjoyable, and thought-provoking novel.

Review: Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill

Baby lives with her father, Jules, a heroin addict.  She doesn’t remember her mother:

He and my mother had both been fifteen when I was born. She had died a year later, so he’d been left to raise me all by himself. It didn’t make him any more mature than any other twenty-six-year-old, though.  He practically fell on the floor and died when a song he liked came on the radio. He was always telling people that he was color-blind because he thought it made him sound original. He also didn’t look too much like a parent … I thought of him as my best friend, as if we were almost the same age. (p. 4)

Jules tries to make a living and support his habit by peddling merchandise at flea markets.  To stay one step ahead of their landlord they seem to always be on the move.  Baby knows how to fit her entire life into a small suitcase.  Despite all these disadvantages, Baby is smart and does well in school.  She seems determined to overcome the odds, but her world is turned upside down when Jules goes into rehab, and Baby into the foster care system. Over the next year, Baby moves in and out of care, is placed into a remedial program at school, and gets sucked into the unhealthy lifestyle on the streets of Montreal.

Baby narrates her story with an authentic twelve-year-old’s voice, and really got on my nerves for the first half of the book.  But as her personal hardships intensified, so did my sympathy, and I found myself pulling for her.  She was often left on her own for days at a time, and had to grow up far too quickly.  I understood why she did what she did, but wished I could influence her choices (I’m avoiding spoilers here).

Such a realistic and gritty story should have been “unputdownable.”  It thought it was an interesting and unique book, but had no problem setting it aside.  It may have just been my mood this past week; I still recommend reading this Orange Prize nominee.

I read this book for Orange January.  Come join the fun!

Midweek @ Musings: It’s January, time to read Woman Authors!


The new year is just 4 days old, but already there are two great reading events in full swing.

First, there’s Orange January, where we read books that have won, or been nominated for, the Orange Prize for Fiction.  It’s a lot of fun, and the best part is, it takes place again in July.  There’s a lot of book chat happening in the LibraryThing and Facebook groups, and some fabulous giveaways from Jill at The Magic Lasso.  Back in July, I introduced my Orange mascot, Pumpkin, who returns this month, as feisty as ever.  I’m not sure how much he’ll have to say, but he likes to climb on the furniture to pose with stacks of books.  I mentioned my reading plans back in December, but Pumpkin insists we do it again.Uploaded from the Photobucket iPhone App  From bottom to top, the books pictured are:

I’ve already completed my first book, Beyond Black.  Notice I said “completed,” not “finished,” because I couldn’t finish it.  The plot sounded intriguing, but the story was just too rambling, the conflict took forever to develop, and I was afraid it would take another forever to resolve.  So: first book of 2012, first “DNF” (read my review).  Sigh.  On to Lullabies for Little Criminals, and I’ll have more to say about that next week.

The second reading event is the year-long Elizabeth Taylor Centenary, where the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group will be reading one of her novels each month.  I wrote about this in December, too, but it never hurts to plug it again!  Taylor’s debut novel, At Mrs. Lippincote’s, is our January book.  I’ve read it, and am enjoying reconnecting with this book through other readers.  And since I don’t have a Taylor novel to read, I’m reading a biography by Nicola Beauman, The Other Elizabeth Taylor.  It’s fascinating to gain such insight into an author who was quite a private individual and didn’t leave much of a paper trail when she passed away.  I’ve learned that one of the characters in At Mrs. Lippincote’s was based on a boy Taylor taught, and that Taylor’s involvement in the local communist party served as inspiration for community meetings in the novel.  And there are other elements of the family’s life drawn from Taylor’s marriage.

We will read her second and third novels in February and March, respectively.  Won’t you join us?

Review: Beyond Black, by Hilary Mantel

I have to admit this is not my usual fare:  “A modern-day medium and a jaded divorceé navigate the world of psychic fairs, until a crazed spirit guide threatens to pull them over to the beyond — a place from which they can never return.”  But it was written by Hilary Mantel, author of the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall.  And it was nominated for the Orange Prize, just like Wolf Hall.  So I had high expectations, but I was ultimately disappointed and unable to finish this, my first book of 2012.

Alison is a spiritual medium, working fairs and stage shows where she brings her audience messages from those who have passed into “Spirit World.”  Colette, recently divorced, attends one of her shows and later becomes Alison’s business partner, helping to organize her diary and the accounts.  Alison is haunted by a troubled past, and by many spirits who speak to her routinely.  Among these is Morris, her “spiritual guide,” a presence from her childhood who is always hanging around and is, frankly, disgusting.  Colette brings a sense of order to Alison’s life, and working for Alison helps Colette land on her own two feet.

Weird?  Yes.  Intriguing?  Maybe.  But dreadfully slow-moving.  And then Princess Diana dies, and Alison & Colette meet up with other mediums and fortune-tellers.  I thought this might be interesting, but it was more of the same:  lots of talk, spirits intruding and making Alison sick, Colette fretting about, and Morris being disgusting.  Then Alison & Colette decide to try to get away from all this by buying a house in a new community, and that seems to take them forever.  Things weren’t looking good for them personally, and I figured anything that happened was going to take a long time.  Like another 165 pages.  I just didn’t have it in me.

(DNF)

The Sunday Salon: Orange January will be here before we know it!

December is always such a whirlwind, with both family birthdays and Christmas to celebrate.  And that’s not all:  Orange January is just around the corner!  This annual reading event, and its companion, Orange July, are devoted to reading at least one book that has won or been nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction.  Jill at The Magic Lasso does a great job organizing these events, and promoting them with groups on both LibraryThing and Facebook.

The groups add a wonderful social element.  I’ve gleaned lots of reading recommendations, and it’s fun to have people cheering me on as I read.  In July I also recruited a mascot — sort of an “Orange personal trainer” — and I’m happy to say he’ll be returning in January!

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My Orange mascot, Pumpkin, helps create my reading list

I’ve read all the winners, and am currently working on the short lists. I don’t necessarily want to read every shortlisted book, but there are several years where I have read the winner, and all but one or two of the shortlisted titles. My inner completist is calling very loudly to “finish” 2011, 2008, 2006, 2004, and 2002. That would be 10 books, which is doable, but doesn’t leave much room to read the 2012 short list.  So we’ll see what happens, but for now I’ve chosen my January reads:

I know you’re eager to take part in Orange January.  What do you plan to read?

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Review: Scottsboro, by Ellen Feldman

Inside the courtroom, rows of long windows ran along two walls. They were closed against the noise of the square, and the yellow shades were drawn, but midday light filtered through, cooking the air. An American flag and another for the state of Alabama hung limp on either side of the judge’s bench. … Instead of a jury box, two rows of chairs that swiveled and tipped to allow the jurors to make themselves comfortable were bolted to the floor. In front of each row, a brass pipe, also attached to the floor, served as a footrest. Spittoons stood at regular intervals, each surrounded by the familiar corona of hardened tobacco juice and saliva. (p. 208)

As the title implies, this novel is about the Scottsboro boys, a famous US civil rights case from the 1930s.  A group of black men — boys, really — were accused of raping two white women on a train.  The case was fraught with racism and questionable legal processes that denied the boys a fair trial.  Appeals continued for several years.  Author Ellen Feldman describes these events through Alice Whittier, a fictional news reporter, and Ruby Bates, one of the two white women.  She paints a vivid picture of Alabama in the 1930s: the climate, the people, and the extreme racism.

Readers unfamiliar with the case will enjoy Feldman’s ability to bring history to life.  As historical fiction, however, it doesn’t quite pass muster.  The best of this genre (or, at least, the ones I’ve most enjoyed) go beyond the basic facts and delve deep into the historic characters, embellishing where facts are scarce.  Scottsboro provides factual information comparable to Wikipedia’s article on the Scottsboro boys.  But Alice Whittier is one-dimensional; a vehicle to advance the plot and fill the time between trials.  Her storyline was like a superfluous wrapper around the heart of the book.  I wasn’t interested in her romantic relationships, or the skeletons in her family’s closet, because I knew them to be complete fiction.  This would have been a better book had Feldman used an actual journalist in the story.  Instead the result is something not quite history, and not quite historical fiction.

Review: When we Were Bad, by Charlotte Mendelson

I love it when I have an unexpectedly delightful reading experience like When we Were Bad.  This unobtrusive little novel about a family of English Jews took me completely by surprise.  Things start with a bang when the Rubins’ eldest son Leo runs away with another woman just one minute before his wedding.  Our first impression of Leo’s family, then, is seen through their reactions to this scandalous event.

Leo’s mother Claudia is a well-known rabbi, one of the first women in her field and highly respected by everyone.  She’s worked hard all her life, but she’s good at what she does, and knows it.  Claudia is also intensely committed to maintaining the Rubins’ image as the family that has it all.  This is all the more important since her book is about to be published.  When Leo runs off, her greatest concern is not for him or his relationship, but on keeping up appearances as a family.

Claudia’s husband Norman has supported her career all these years, keeping his own ambitions largely to himself.  Daughter Frances is married with an infant and two older stepchildren.  Two younger adult children, Simeon and Emily, are still trying to establish their independence.  All are intensely loyal to one another, and especially to Claudia.  She’s formidable, and such a strong force in their lives that not one of them will make a move without considering the impact on her.  But this also causes a lot of sneaking around.  Norman, for example, is working on a book of his own but can’t find the right time to tell Claudia.  Frances feels trapped by marriage and parenthood, but feels completely alone and unable to ask her family for support.  And even Claudia, so cool and collected on the outside, has her own secret problems to deal with.

So much family drama makes When we Were Bad sound like an intense read, but it’s served with a generous helping of humor.  Just as I was getting all teary over developments in one character’s life, something else would happen to make me laugh.  Each of the characters are tremendously flawed, and yet completely likeable.  On the one hand, I felt I should despise Claudia for controlling everything around her and stifling others.  But I loved her for what she had achieved, and for her fierce devotion to her family.  As each character’s story line moved towards its conclusion, I felt both happy and sad about this family that I’d come to know so well.  We went through a lot together over 321 pages, and I won’t soon forget it.

Review: Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

In 1968, a baby was born to Jacinta and Treadway Blake, in a small Labrador trapping village.  The birth was attended by a few village women, all close friends.  One woman, Thomasina, noticed something unusual right away:  the baby had both male and female genitalia.  She was the only one outside the family who knew, and supported Jacinta as she struggled to accept what this would mean to them, and to the baby. Treadway decided the baby would be raised as a boy, and while Jacinta felt otherwise, she would not go against her husband.  From that moment on the baby was known as Wayne, although Thomasina often called him “Annabel” in private.

Jacinta wished she could raise Wayne as both son and daughter, and only vaguely understood the challenges this could pose for Wayne as he grew up.  Treadway desperately wanted a traditional, masculine son, and despaired at Wayne’s more feminine interests.  As a boy, Wayne was ignorant of the medical details, and knew only that he has to take special vitamins.  He felt vaguely different from the other boys he knew, and his closest friend was a girl.  While Wayne’s medical treatment was costly, the more devastating impact was emotional.  Jacinta and Treadway are unable to share their feelings with each other, and gradually this takes a toll.  Wayne found it increasingly difficult to relate to either of them, and life only became more difficult as he matured and struggled to find his true self.

Kathleen Winter drew me into this story gradually, and skillfully.  It wasn’t a page-turner, but I was surprised to find myself emotionally caught up in this book.  I despaired at Jacinta and Treadway’s broken relationship, and each response to the family tension.  My heart wrenched over the conflict between Treadway and Wayne, especially when Treadway’s fears led him to destroy something very dear to Wayne.  I also felt very sad for Wayne, who had a secret no one could understand, and coped with so much emotional trauma.  As he approached adulthood, Wayne began to understand and accept himself, and I closed the book knowing his life would never be easy, but there were glimmers of hope for his future.

Review: Great House, by Nicole Krauss

Great House is an unusual novel that makes considerable demands of the reader.  The book is made up of four loosely connected stories, but I didn’t pick up on that at first.  Part I has four chapters — the first part of each story — and felt disjointed, like four unfinished, disconnected works with weak character development.  At the close of Part I, I was enormously frustrated.  I broke one of my cardinal rules and read some reviews of this book.  They inspired me to continue reading, and I’m glad I did.  I finished the first story in Part II and was flooded with emotion.  The same thing happened with the second, third, and fourth stories.  And suddenly the book made sense, and I was reminded of a quote I’d flagged early on:

There are moments when a kind of clarity comes over you, and suddenly you can see through walls to another dimension that you’d forgotten or chosen to ignore in order to continue living with the various illusions that make life, particularly life with other people, possible.  (p. 14)

I found myself warming to the characters which include a writer telling her life story, an older man reflecting on his relationship with his adult son, a man who discovers a secret his wife kept from him for years, and the adult children of an antiques dealer.  Woven through Great House are themes of exile, loss, and betrayal, all in a Jewish context.  It was fascinating, and I kept flagging quotes like this:

What is the point of a religion that turns its back on the subject of what happens when life ends? Having been denied an answer — having been denied an answer while at the same time being cursed as a people who for thousands of years have aroused in others a murderous hate — the Jew has no choice but to live with death every day. To live with it, to set up his house in its shadow, and never to discuss its terms.  (p. 175)

Towards the end I could see how Nicole Krauss was building a kind of metaphor for the Jewish experience:

if every Jewish memory were put together, every last holy fragment joined up again as one, the House would be built again, said Weisz, or rather a memory of the House so perfect that it would be, in essence, the original itself. Perhaps that is what they mean when they speak of the Messiah: a perfect assemblage of the infinite parts of the Jewish memory. (p. 279)

Well as I said, this book does make demands of the reader.  I’m not even sure I understood it all, but I felt rewarded in the end.

The Sunday Salon: Pumpkin’s Orange Wrap

I know what you’re thinking.  After Wednesday’s Orange Pause, you’re expecting another pun:  a rap to wrap up Orange July.  Sorry. I may be a smart, talented cat but unfortunately I’m not that talented.  I found this video though:

Shocking, isn’t it?  I’m glad Laura didn’t have any wild ideas about wrapping me up for Orange July !!

So anyway, in the above photo above I was admiring Laura’s Orange July book stack.  I’m really proud of her for reading 5 Orange Prize nominees this month! Let’s take a closer look, shall we?  (For an even larger view, click on the photo below).

Reading from the bottom up (yes, I can read, thank you very much!!), Laura read:

The links will take you to reviews, except for Great House.  Laura read that one while on vacation and hasn’t posted the review yet (pssst!  Laura!  Nudge, nudge …)

But Orange July wasn’t just about Laura.  There were so many participants!  The interwebs were all abuzz with Orangey chatter, in both the Facebook and LibraryThing groups.  Our wonderful host, Jill @ The Magic Lasso, sponsored tons of book giveaways and generally kept the party going.  And then there was my part, which if you ask me was best of all.  Laura let me write a post every single week and while I know I usually didn’t have much to say, you have to admit I look good on camera:

Now I can’t wait for Orange January !

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Read more from The Sunday Salon here.