Girls by Frederick Busch

The best word I can think of to describe Frederick Busch’s novel Girls is muscular. The novel has certainly received much higher praise than that. Glamour Magazine called it “powerful,” and went on to describe it as an intriguing crime story although the novel’s real strength lay with the main character’s  “growing insight about his marriage, his town, and himself [which] transforms this page-turner about lost children into a tender and eloquent examination of the even greater mystery that is the human heart.”

Jack is a somewhat cantankerous Vietnam veteran who is currently a campus cop at a small college in upstate New York. His wife, Fanny, is an emergency-room nurse. Jack and Fanny are mourning the recent loss of their infant daughter, Hannah. They can barely be in the same room with each other and so they work opposite shifts, drifting past each other in a haze of exhaustion and grief.

Then a local girl goes missing and someone suggests Jack help out with the investigation, ostensibly as a way of working through his own issues.

The characters in Busch’s novel are all messed up.  Jack and Hannah are locked in a grief-fueled stalemate and neither seems to know how to make the first move. As Jack observes:

I thought, as I stayed where I was, that somebody ought to walk around the table and hug this woman hard and just hold on.

Instead, Jack fills his days helping cars up icy hills, rescuing suicidal co-eds, drinking sour coffee with his confessor, Archie, and trying to figure out just what happened to the missing girl.

Girls is a  atmospheric and tragic story and the characters, particularly Jack, are well-drawn and convincing. The novel is often funny, too. In one scene, where Jack runs a drug-dealer off the campus, I laughed out loud.

Busch is a new-to-me writer, but he’s written 20 other novels and he’s impressed me enough to look for more.

The New York Times has a terrific review of the novel here.

Before the Knife by Carolyn Slaughter

The Betty and Boo Chronicles is hosting a Memorable Memoir Reading Challenge and as I actually have a few memoirs on my tbr pile, I thought I could manage to fulfill the challenge’s requirements: read four memoirs in one year. That’s doable.

I just finished my first memoir, Before the Knife by Carolyn Slaughter.

Before I talk about the book, let me say a few words about the author. I discovered Carolyn Slaughter 20 odd years ago, purely by accident. I came across her novel, The Banquet in a book store and its tag line “a taut and powerful story of obsessive love” caught my attention.  Well of course it did. At the time I was madly (and a little obsessively) in love myself. I devoured the book and then went looking for more. In a second hand store I came across her novel Relations (which is also known as The Story of the Weasel in that weird way books have their name changed between the UK and North America). That book was stunning. That book caused me to write a letter to Ms. Slaughter, the first and only fan letter I have ever written to an author. A letter to which she replied. In total I have read six novels by Ms. Slaughter (I highly recommend Magdalene as well as the two I have already mentioned) and I count myself a huge fan. She is an immensely talented writer.

Her memoir wasn’t what I expected, however, and I can’t say I loved it. Born in India, her parents moved to Africa when Slaughter was very young. Her father had some sort of government job; her mother was mostly emotionally unavailable and Carolyn, her older sister, Angela and her younger sister, Susan had a weird and unhappy childhood.

Carolyn prefaces her story by telling the reader of a horrific incident that happened to her when she was six. Then she goes on to say that Before the Knife isn’t a memoir about that. Except it is –  because Carolyn was clearly shaped by what happened to her. She does her best to survive her cruel mother and horrible father and much of her survival depends on her affinity with the land. She clearly loves Africa, its wild and exotic landscape a place of  refuge for her.

The story covers Slaughter’s life from her arrival in Africa to her return to England when she’s 16 or so. The pages in between are filled with striking images of the land, the people (both blacks and whites) who occupied it and Slaughter’s complicated and strained relationship with her siblings and parents. She’s not entirely likable – prone to violence against others and herself.

It’s not until years later, when she herself remembers what had transpired when she was just a little girl, that her story comes into focus. By then, though, I felt disconnected from her – the strange little bits of revealed life never really coming together. And I really wish she’d talked about writing.

Nevertheless, I have no regrets about reading her story. There was certainly nothing ordinary about it!

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee is a South African writer and former winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Disgrace is the first novel I’ve read by Coetzee. It won the Booker Prize in 1999.

Disgrace is the story of Literature Professor, David Lurie. Lurie is a man who answers only to himself. Twice divorced, Lurie has “solved the problem of sex rather well.” But then his life starts to unravel; he pursues a student who seems ambivalent (but not altogether resistant) about his advances. When she accuses him of impropriety, Lurie does nothing to defend himself.  He packs himself off to his adult daughter’s farm on the Eastern Cape. His relationship with his daughter, Lucy, isn’t a particularly close one. Lurie, it seems, has been a haphazard father. He loves her, but he doesn’t know her. One day a horrific event changes their lives forever.

On the surface it would seem that Disgrace is about one man’s midlife crisis. Lurie chases beauty. He’s attractive and charming enough to grasp it – however fleetingly. What Lurie doesn’t have, however, is substance. And it isn’t until he’s forced to reorder his self-centered world that he gains real insight into what makes him human. That compassion, when it comes, is hard-earned. One of the interesting things about Lurie is that as a teacher of Romantic poetry (a movement that reveres nature), he actually finds all things natural distasteful – so life on the farm isn’t comfortable at all for him.

Disgrace was an easy book to read, but don’t let the prose fool you. This book is jam-packed with thoughtful ideas: how does a parent love a child; how does a man, at the mid-point of his life, reconcile who he thinks he is with who he is in actuality; how do the white people of South Africa co-exist peacefully with the Blacks – can they?

Disgrace isn’t a feel-good book. I did, however, feel that Lurie attained a certain grace by the novel’s final pages and, while in his company, I felt a little like it might be possible for everyone to achieve a similar state – although the trip is often unpleasant.

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

Out Stealing Horses has been on my tbr list for ages, so I was happy when it was chosen as the December read for my book club. I was also surprised because the woman who chose generally dislikes translations and this novel was translated from the original Norwegian. Anyway, I settled in and finished the book (one of the few in the group who actually did) and even after discussing it – I am not sure how I feel about the book.

The story concerns 67 year old Trond Sander who is living in isolation after the death of his second wife. The novel moves seamlessly between Trond’s every day concerns (getting his driveway plowed and stacking wood) and his memories of his youth. The summer he was 15 he and his father had left Trond’s mother and sister in Oslo and come to a cottage quike like the one Trond is currently inhabiting. It was there that Trond’s world was knocked off-kilter – not only by a tragedy that occurred in his friend Jon’s family, but also by events in his own life.

It took my a while to settle into this book. It’s a quiet novel and while the writing is quite powerful (particularly Pettersen’s descriptions of the natural world), I found the long sentences strangely difficult…too many commas or something. Still, I eventually stopped wanting to add full stops and gave myself over to Trond’s remarkable childhood recollections.

I’m not sure this book will appeal to everyone and so it’s not one that I can whole-heartedly recommend. That said – I do think it achieves something quite remarkable. As Trond’s story unfolds we learn a universal truth – sometimes there are no satisfactory explanations for life’s mysteries.

The Trade Mission by Andrew Pyper

I hate it when a book flummoxes me. I hate it when I feel outsmarted by a book, too. Andrew Pyper’s novel The Trade Mission is probably one of those books which deserves to be read twice: once for the story and once for the deeper philosophical issues that I knew were there, but which somehow eluded me. Mostly, anyway.

Jonathan Bates and Marcus Wallace are childhood friends who have become dot com millionaires for their invention of something called Hypothesys.

“We feel that Hypothesys is something that is truly going to change the way we conduct our lives,” explains Wallace to investors gathered in Brazil. “It’s not another Internet site…Hypothesys helps you make the best decisions of your life.”

Ironically, when it comes to making moral decisions with real consequences, Wallace and Bates are left to their own devices. While playing tourist on the Rio Negro, deep in the Amazonian jungle, they (and their companions Elizabeth Crossman, their interpreter; Barry, their managing partner and Lydia, their European counsel) are kidnapped by pirates. What follows is a strange combination of violence and soul searching.

The Trade Mission is narrated by Crossman and she’s in a unique position; as the only one of the party able to speak the language she can embellish or omit.  She also seems to love and hate Wallace in equal measure.  Truthfully, he isn’t particularly sympathetic. His relationship with Bates is eerily sexual and he often seems smug about his intellectual prowess. As for Crossman herself, she isn’t the most accessible of characters and I have to admit that her role, when the story finally starts to unravel, seems a bit of a cheat. The novel’s section After was too sentimental for me, especially coming after the horrors the characters experienced.

Pyper’s a terrific writer. I’m a fan. I liked his novel Lost Girls, which I read several years ago. But I remember feeling somehow unsatisfied after reading that novel, too.  The Trade Mission is billed as a ‘novel of psychological terror.’ Sure, some of it was squirm inducing, but it wasn’t a page-turner in that ‘oh my God, what’s gonna happen next’ way.

Thus the flummox. And the am I missing something. Still worth a read, though.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Several months ago Muriel Barbery’s novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog was chosen as the book for the bookstore reading group I lead. We have a sort of willy nilly way of choosing our books and this novel ended up on the top of the heap. When we came together to discuss it a month later, other than the woman who had thrown it into the pile, no one else had finished the book- including me. I got about halfway through…and I just really didn’t like the book at all. So imagine my dismay when the novel was chosen by my longstanding book club as our first novel for our new reading year! I had no choice but to finish the book.

So, I started again. And strangely, this time around, I didn’t find the book so grating. That’s not to say that I found it all that plausible, either. Still, I did manage to get through it.

Barbery’s novel tells the story of Renee, a concierge at an elegant apartment building in Paris.

I am short, ugly and plump, I have bunions on my feet and, if I am to credit early mornings of self-inflicted disgust, the breath of a mammoth. I did not go to college, I have always been poor, discreet and insignificant. (19)

Renee has, despite what she considers her considerable flaws, a deep and abiding love for literature, art and music. Seriously, the novel opens with a rumination on Marx – which is perhaps the reason why I didn’t groove to the novel straight away the first time around: I know nothing about Marx.

Paloma lives in the building with her parents and older sister. At twelve, Paloma is already sick of the world and everyone in it.

My parents are rich, my family is rich and my sister and I are, therefore rich….Despite all that, despite all this good fortune and all this wealth, I have known for a long time that the final destination is the goldfish bowl. How do I know? Well, the fact is that I am very intelligent. Exceptionally intelligent. (23)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about appearances. Renee is forever fearful about giving away her love of the finer things; after all, she’s just a concierge. Paloma,  is keeping a journal of profound thoughts and plotting her own death. And then into their lives comes a Japanese gentleman named Kakuro Ozu. He sees straight through these women, into their very heart of hearts and changes them in ways they might have never imagined.

This novel was a sensation in France. As with any translation, it’s important to remember that you are not reading it in its original form; something is bound to be lost in the translation no matter how good it is.

I have a feeling that when we discuss this novel tomorrow night, most everyone will have loved it. I didn’t love it (in fact I didn’t like the ending at all!), but I did see the novel’s charms- even though I often found the novel pretentious (all these mini-lessons on art and literature) and perhaps just a tad contrived.

Envy by Kathryn Harrison

envy

I have mad love for Kathryn Harrison. I think she’s a beautiful writer and she often tackles difficult subjects, train wrecks from which you can not turn away.

Envy is the story of psychoanalyst Will Moreland. The landscape of his life is pitted with estranged relationships (his identical – save for the brother’s wine-stain birthmark – twin, Mitch); death (his young son, Luke, killed in a boating accident) and a strained sexual relationship with his wife, Carole (they still do it, but not face to face and Will isn’t allowed to touch her).  From these more-connected-than-you-think threads, Harrison weaves a story which is often funny, sometimes creepy, and slightly over-wrought (particularly near the end).

The novel opens as Will is about to return to his alma mater  for his 25th reunion. He’s clearly not interested in the majority of his classmates. He’s on the lookout for two people in particular: his brother, whom he hasn’t seen since he married Carole 15 years ago and Elizabeth, his college girlfriend.  His brother is a no-show. Elizabeth is there, but their reunion brings to the surface a disturbing revelation.

There are elements of Envy which revisit  some of the themes Harrison has used before in her work: sex used as power, grief, incest. It’s one of the reasons why I like her work so much- she’s practically fearless. Still, I didn’t love this book. I understand Will is traumatized by the death of his young son. I understand that as a professional in the mental health field he’s likely to be less astute about his own feelings and motives, but Envy (for me at least) suffers under the strain of too much plot. For instance, I liked Will’s dad, but do I care about his extra-marital relationship or his second career as a photographer. Not particularly.

And I didn’t like the ending all that much.  Some pretty devastating things happen in this novel, yet Carole and Will seem to move past it all almost effortlessly.  Since the book is told entirely from Will’s point of view, Carole’s feelings about the loss of her son, her struggles to carry on, her own traumatic experiences are exposed only in dialogue and only at the very end. On the other hand, Will examines and re-examines his feelings, sort of distantly and myopically, though. Sometimes I just wanted to see him as  a middle-aged man trying to do his best. And who, might I ask, is paying the least bit of attention to Samantha, the couple’s surving child?

Still, it’s Kathryn Harrison and I’ll take one of her books over just about anything else out there any day of the week.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

sawtelle

When B. pulled The Story of Edgar Sawtelle out of her bag at last month’s book club reveal there was a silent sigh of dismay. I know I felt it. Despite the fact that the book has garnered heaps of praise and was flying off the shelf at Indigo last summer, I had no desire to read it. When my friend said she was going to take it with her when she went to England with her mom I said: “Don’t do it; this book weighs a ton!”

As it turned out,  of the ten members of my book club I was (along with B.) the only person who read it. Er…finished it. One person got about half way through, a few others read 50-100 pages. The book is l-o-n-g…562 pages but lest you think I actually judge a book by its length, let me say that The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is very well written. I would have said that dog lovers would eat this book up- but this wasn’t the case with the dog lovers in my book club; none of them finished.

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I didn’t love this book in the way most others have- well, the critics at least, who have compared this book to Shakespeare, an “American Hamlet” even (Mark Doty). The book concerns the Sawtelle family, parents Trudy and Gar and their son, Edgar, who is born mute. They live on a farm in Wisconsin where they breed dogs known as the ‘Sawtelle’ dogs, remarkable because they can read Edgar’s signs. When Gar’s younger brother, Claude, returns to the farm Edgar’s idyllic life starts to unravel and when his father dies suddenly, Edgar’s grief is palpable. As Claude grows closer to his mother and assumes more of a role on the farm, Edgar becomes obssessed with proving that Claude had something to do with his father’s death.

Things don’t work out quite as Edgar plans though, and he leaves the farm, taking three ‘Sawtelle’ dogs with him. Eventually, though, he returns to the farm to confront his uncle – with dramatic results. (I actually thought the ending was spectacularly melodramatic.)

Why do some books work and others not so much? I can’t fault Wroblewski’s writing. In some ways I felt like he jammed the book with every possible theme, like maybe this debut might mark the beginning and end of his literary career. Ultimately, though, there was just too much ‘dog talk’ – sits and stays and day-to-day kennel business that just wasn’t of interest to me and, in some ways, diluted the book’s larger themes of revenge and love.  It wasn’t that I had a hard time reading the book…I just never really invested my heart in Edgar’s story.

In the Forest by Edna O’Brien

intheforest

Michael O’Kane is one of those troubled kids who slips through the cracks. After the death of his beloved mother, he gets into one increasingly more serious scrape after another until he is finally sent away. His stint in reform school is brutal and not even the priests offer solace.

O’Kane is the central character of Edna O’Brien’s riveting (and difficult) novel In the Forest. Reading this book reminded me a little bit of reading Joyce Carol Oates. I want to like Oates but I find her difficult to read. Still,  I know that if I stick to it I’ll often feel rewarded in the end. O’Brien is an Irish writer and I was happier when I was able to read this book for longer stretches of time. After a half an hour or so I got used to the rhythm of the language and it became as musical as the Irish lilt is to the ear.

Ultimately though In the Forest is a brutal story. O’Kane returns home after his latest stint behind bars and wreaks havoc. Everyone in the village is afraid of him; he’s clearly dangerous and crazy. O’Brien’s book is based on true events, but I won’t tell you more than that. I will tell you that there is a moment at the end of the book that is deeply touching and unexpected. Trust me, coming after all the violence it will be impossible to miss.

The Enchantment of Lily Dahl by Siri Hustvedt

lilydahl1

Despite early reservations,  I kept reading The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that I loved the novel in the end. It’s a strange book populated by a cast of characters so odd it seems impossible that they should all end up in the same story.

There’s Lily, the 19 year old waitress who worships Marilyn Monroe and dreams of becoming an actress. There’s Mabel, her elderly next-door-neighbour, who  can’t sleep and spends her time writing  the story of her life. There’s Dick and Frank, two elderly men who are so filthy they leave a black cloud wherever they go. There’s Hank, Lily’s beau-hunk of an ex-boyfriend. There’s Edward, the artist who lives in the building across the street. And then there’s Martin, an oddly menacing boy Lily has known her whole life. This wild assortment of characters live in a small town, Webster Minnesota, where Lily works as a waitress at the Ideal Cafe.

The story Hustvedt is trying to tell seems to be one about secrets and memory, youth and old age, dreams lost and realized. The whole middle section of the book, though, reads as though Lily is crazy and it’s hard to say whether this is a triumph (and I am just too dense to see it) or a failing.

In between waiting tables and sleeping with the painter from the building across the road, Lily is rehearsing her part in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She also seems to be, to some degree, coming apart at the seams- although I think this is supposed to be the character navigating the tricky road from innocence to experience.

For me, though, while her coming-of-age-journey was nicely written, I never felt connected to Lily or what was happening to her. Both the real and the imagined obstacles were off-kilter…as odd as Lily and the people she spent time with.