April 11, 2014

Influential Books

Adam at Roof Beam Reader has posted the ten most influential books in his life and has challenged others to do the same.  I've thought about it for days and spent some time combing my bookshelves and reminiscing about the books that have impacted my life.

Like Adam, I'm not going to explain the reasons why each book is so important to me in this post, but feel free to ask me in the comments if you're curious.  I will say that this list is not the same as a list of my favorite books and, in fact, one book makes the list precisely because I didn't enjoy it. 


In no particular order:

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Without Reservations by Alice Steinbach
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

I know that's only nine books — the last one on my list isn't actually published.  Before my grandfather died, he wrote a memoir about growing up in Philadelphia during the Great Depression and his career working in machine shops and factories.  I've read it multiple times now, and for Christmas a few years ago I had copies printed and bound for each member of my family.

Okay, okay, I know I said I wouldn't explain the list.  So I'll end here.  What books would make your most influential list?  Do we have any in common?

March 27, 2014

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson

I knew I was in for a treat with The Long Ships when I read the opening sentence to Michael Chabon's short introduction: "In my career as a reader I have encountered only three people who knew The Long Ships, and all of them, like me, loved it immoderately."

Published in the 1940s, The Long Ships tells the life story of Orm Tostesson, also called Red Orm, and his adventures as a viking around the year 1000 AD.  Taken captive from his home at the age of sixteen, Orm spends his youth as first a crew member under a chief named Krok and then as a slave on a Spanish ship.  From there, he is inducted into the bodyguard of the Caliph of Córdoba.  His subsequent voyages take him to Ireland, England, and into what is now Russia.

Along the way, Orm meets all manner of people, from historic figures like King Harald Bluetooth to bishops, warriors, and jesters.  Bengtsson manages to humanize a time that so many consider barbaric; yes, there is war and violence and slavery, but there is also a plethora of characters who are kind and intelligent and honorable. There's even a strong female main character, Ylva, whose tenacity and humor cause Orm to fall in love with her.
"You are not afraid to show when you are afraid," she said.  "That much, at least, must be said in your favor [...] It was high time someone taught this Sigtrygg a lesson.  His breath stank loathsomely, and there was talk between him and Sven of his having me to wife.  Had this happened, he would not have enjoyed many nights of wedlock, for I am not to be pleasured by any chance berserk whose fancy I may happen to tickle.  So at least I owe you thanks for saving me from that extremity." [147]
Ylva refuses to marry Orm until he converts to Christianity — his third adopted religion in The Long Ships.  Though the novel is an adventure story more than anything, it provides insight into medieval practices of Islam, Christianity, and Norse religion.

The only fault I can find with The Long Ships is its episodic nature, which harkens back to its emulation of oral histories.  Chapters often contain a complete tale, leaving the reader feeling that all has been wrapped up neatly.  Although this isn't necessarily a negative, it did make me less anxious to keep reading at the close of each of Orm's tales. 

Four out of five stars. 

P.S.  I first heard of The Long Ships from Eva's excellent review over at A Striped Armchair

P.P.S.  This is my favorite quote from The Long Ships —  it really sums things up: 
The year ended without the smallest sign having appeared in the sky, and there ensued a period of calm in the border country.  Relations with the Smalanders continued to be peaceful, and there were no local incidents worth mentioning, apart from the usual murders at feasts and weddings, and a few men burned in their houses as a result of neighborly disputes. [387]
You know, just the usual wedding murders and neighborly arson.  No biggie.

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Frans G. Bengtsson (1894-1954) was Swedish author.  His works include poetry and essay collections, a biography of Charles XII of Sweden, and The Long Ships, which was published in two separate installments in the 1940s. 

The Long Ships © Frans G. Bengtsson, 1954.  My edition © New York Review Books, 2010. Paperback, 498 pages.   

March 12, 2014

The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea by Philip Hoare

A few weeks after reading Demon Fish, I found a copy of The Whale in my town's used bookstore and decided to continue my marine explorations.

In The Whale, Philip Hoare closely examines how whales have shaped human history, with Moby Dick and Herman Melville's life as a jumping-off point.  Though I expected the book to discuss whaling and the novel that so many associate with it, I was surprised to find that the majority of the book was spent detailing Melville's life and the blow-by-blow chronology of the whaling industry.  Though this was interesting, I had hoped that the book would focus more on the natural lives and biology of whales.

There are a few chapters toward the end of the book that focused more on what research has discovered about whales, including revelations about just how old some cetaceans actually are — bowhead whales have been documented to live as long as 211 years!  Scientists have determined their longevity by the unexpected method of dating the broken, centuries-old weapons found embedded in their flesh:
Even as I write, a three-and-a-half-inch lance tip, made in New Bedford in the 1890s, has been removed from the blubber of a bowhead caught off Alaska.  The consequences haunt me: that these whales swam the same seas that Scoresby had negotiated; that the same animals from which he had made his observations might yet still be alive.  It is also an exquisite revenge: born before Melville, the whales have outlived their pursuers.  [294-295]
Not only are whales able to live for centuries, carrying their hunters' failed weapons inside them like time capsules, but their social structures are a lot closer to ours than we think:
Such research suggests entire communities of whales, ocean-wide clans moving in distinctive patterns and 'speaking' in distinctive repertoires of clicks, like humans sharing the same language.  Separate groups of the same species will act in different ways, foraging for food in different manners — methods learned maternally, passed on from generation to generation.  [356-35]
In the end, it seemed as though Philip Hoare couldn't quite decide what the main focus of the book should be — history of whaling, nature book, childhood reminiscence, or critical look at a classic novel.  Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more had I read Moby Dick beforehand (though, after reading The Whale, I now know the entire plot and all the historical background). 

Four out of five stars.  Although I didn't find everything I was looking for within The Whale, that had more to do with my expectations than a fault of Hoare's writing.

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Philip Hoare is the author of six non-fiction books, including England’s Lost Eden: Adventures in a Victorian Utopia, Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy, and the First World War, and biographies of Noel Coward and Stephen Tennant.  He has worked for the BBC and is the co-curator of the Moby Dick Big Read

The Whale © Philip Hoare and HarperCollins, 2010.  Hardcover, 394 pages.

March 5, 2014

The House Girl by Tara Conklin

The House Girl alternates between two time periods and two women: Josephine, a seventeen-year-old house slave on a Virginia tobacco farm, and Lina, a modern-day lawyer in New York City.  Their stories are brought together when Lina is tasked with finding the descendants of slaves to serve as plaintiffs in a lawsuit over reparations for slave labor used by large corporations.

Josephine's days are filled with cooking, cleaning, and caring for her ailing mistress, Lu Anne Bell, but there is a bright spot among the drudgery — Lu Anne fancies herself a artist, though she often grows too tired to finish her paintings and instead asks Josephine to complete them.  Josephine's creations are beautiful, and their appeal will garner tremendous fame in the future, but only under Lu Anne's name.  The House Girl poses complex questions about art, including why certain works become famous and others languish unseen.  In Josephine's case, her paintings will be used in the future to romanticize plantation life and the legacy of slavery.

Conklin's writing is strong throughout The House Girl, but it truly shines during the sections dedicated to Josephine's story:
Who was she to think of escape?  Who was she to imagine a world beyond Bell Creek?  You foolish girl.  Standing on the porch, the sharp smell of a distant fire, her dress stiff with dust and damp, the groan of old wood as Missus Lu leaned the rocker forward and back, forward and back, and Josephine felt as though roots had long ago forged themselves beneath her, securing her forever to this small piece of earth, and it was not within her power to release them.  [108]
The chapters about Lina are well-crafted as well, and toward the end of the novel are full of urgency and suspense as she tries to unravel Josephine's fate in order to find her descendants.  However, each time I reached a section about Lina, all I wanted was to rush through it and get back to Josephine.

My only true complaint about The House Girl is that the last-minute romance plot line felt forced and unnecessary, and a part of me wonders if it wasn't original but added in at the behest of an editor. 

Overall, I strongly recommend this book, and want to thank the wonderful Alley for sending it to me!  Four out of five stars.

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Tara Conklin was born on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and now lives in Seattle.  Like her character Lina, Conklin has worked as a litigator for a corporate law firm in New York and London.  The House Girl is her first novel.

The House Girl © Tara Conklin and HarperCollins, 2013.  Paperback, 365 pages.

February 18, 2014

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro

The stories in Alice Munro's Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage are both familiar and unnerving.  On the surface, Munro may fool the reader into thinking her characters live quiet lives filled with commonplace problems, but the compact worlds she creates are so unexpected that a happy ending feels entirely subversive.

I underlined so many examples of wonderful, insightful writing that it was hard to pick one to put in this review, but here's one from "Floating Bridge," in which a woman dying of cancer has an odd encounter with a charming younger man:
"She would not be able to believe that, deep down, he had not some knowledge of this moment.  Of her.  To think of him not having that brought on a kind of emotional vertigo, the sense of horrid drop.  And yet — an excitement.  The unspeakable excitement you feel when a galloping disaster promises to release you from all responsibility for your own life.  Then for shame you must compose yourself and stay very quiet." [60]
I read Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage for my book club, and one thing we spent a while discussing was the timelessness of Munro's stories.  I don't mean the prospect of her work being read long into the future (though the Pulitzer Prize can't hurt), but the fact that so many of the stories in this collection seem so unmoored from time that the rare time-specific detail feels jarring.

As with every short story collection, some were more memorable than others, and for me the first and the last in the book were the true stand-outs.  The first, the titular "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage," begins with a woman leaving her stable future to find the man she's been exchanging letters with  — only to realize that their long-distance relationship is built on lies.  And in "The Bear Came Over The Mountain," an elderly man watches his ailing wife fall in love with another patient at her nursing home.  This last one draws out all the lingering emotions in the previous eight stories, playing off the themes of adultery, memory, and the lengths to which a person will go to either protect themselves or coddle someone they love.

Four out of five stars. 

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Alice Munro is the author of over ten collections of short stories and one novel, Lives of  Girls and Women.  In 2013, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
 
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage © Alice Munro and Vintage, 2001.  Paperback, 321 pages.